Why you shouldn’t visit Starbucks when you come to Queenstown

It’s a real shame that Starbucks was allowed to set up shop in Queenstown. If that isn’t a hint as to the bias of this article, I’ll make it even clearer… If you actually do love Starbucks you should probably stop reading now. Or maybe step outside your comfort zone and keep reading, it might change your life, or at the very least it will hopefully encourage you to think twice before visiting the big green monster.

It actually amazes me that there are people in Starbucks when I walk past – I just went outside the Active office, down around the corner to the ‘local’ Starbucks to check, just to make sure they are actually real people inside. The only semi-plausible reason I can imagine for them being in there is the free WiFi (come on Queenstown, let’s get free WiFi in the CBD, then no one will go to Starbucks!)

OK, so let me set the scene a little…

Every year Phil and I travel to America to visit Active alumni, it’s a blast. It really is a fantastic adventure, where we’re able to explore a small part of our guest’s backyards and make sure we have our ‘finger on the pulse’, so to speak. We go out with our alumni on local hikes, we hold evening presentations and sometimes we opt for a good old fashioned dinner and catch up. We cherish these experiences and we believe that a bit of face to face time can really help to forge long lasting friendships.

We both have a knack for spotting the local establishments and we’ll often go out of our way to try and experience a place the way the locals would. We’ll opt for trains and busses over taxis, and local restaurants over chains. One thing we both struggle with though, is leaving behind our beloved flat white coffees. This is where it gets embarrassing. On our recent Roadshow we got sucked into the Starbucks vortex. The vortex that destroys small business and stands for everything we stand against. We needed free WiFi and we needed our double espresso, and once we found out how to order something that was marginally acceptable (a ‘double shot, short latte’) we were sucked in and spat out with bladders full of milk, on a daily basis.

Yes, it’s true, we’re coffee snobs here in New Zealand, I mean over-the-top, delusional coffee snobs. Hell, we’re even sceptical about coffee when we’re in Italy. That’s to say it’s truly a sorry state to find ourselves satisfying our coffee craving at Starbucks. At the risk of generalising, you could sum up American coffee culture as ‘big is better’. What Starbucks did was facilitate the transition from bottomless filter coffee to ‘tastes like milk’, ‘I’ll take a grande please’. To be fair, bottomless filter coffee wasn’t a great option in the first place, but at least it came hand in hand with a quirky, locally owned diner. It’s hard to find those diners these days… Capitalism and the ‘Walmart Effect’ eh.

The good news is, in New Zealand YOU STILL HAVE OPTIONS. We made a terrible mistake when we allowed Starbucks to come to Queenstown, but I’m determined to do my part here and encourage you to get your daily caffeine fix anywhere but Starbucks.

The benefits to you are numerous:

  • You’ll get a better coffee
  • Your coffee won’t be full of whipped cream or fake syrup
  • You’re more likely to be surrounded by locals, not tourists
  • You’ll be supporting a local business

Here are our Queenstown cafe recommendations:

Vudu Cafe & Larder

Vudu Larder Queenstown

Joes Garage

Joes Garage Queenstown

HALO Forbidden Bite Restaurant

Halo Queenstown

Bespoke Kitchen

Bespoke Kitchen Queenstown

Bob’s Weigh

Bob's Weigh Queenstown

That’s just a small selection. Next year on our Roadshow I vow to not visit a single Starbucks. Take on my challenge and don’t visit Starbucks when you come to Queenstown.

Make sure you read our tips on how to order a coffee when you’re here (or ask our guides to help you out!)

Mapping the US nuclear war plan for 1956

A few months back, the National Security Archive made national headlines when they released a 1956 US target list they had obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The target list outlined over a thousand Strategic Air Command nuclear targets in the Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc, the People’s Republic of China, and North Korea. The Archive had posted a small graphic of the ones in Eastern Europe, but hadn’t digitized the full list. Several weeks ago, the people at the Future of Life Institute did just this, digitizing the complete dataset — no small task, given that these were spread over several hundred, non-OCR-able pages of smudgy, 60-year-old government documents.1

A sampling of the 1956 target list obtained by the National Security Archive. The digits encode latitude and longitude points, among other bits of information.

A sampling of the 1956 target list obtained by the National Security Archive. The digits encode latitude and longitude points, among other bits of information.

I recently attended a conference that the FLI put on regarding nuclear war. FLI was co-founded by the MIT physicist Max Tegmark and his wife Meia (among a few others), both of whom I was glad I got to spend some time with, as they are interesting, intelligent people with interesting histories. They are interested in promoting work that decreases existential threats to the human race, which they see as possibly including things like nuclear war and nuclear winter, but also unhampered artificial intelligence, climate change, and the possible negative futures of biotechnology. These are all, of course, controversial topics (not always controversial among the same groups of people, to be sure). They’re an interesting group, and they are stirring up some interesting discussions, which I think is an unambiguously positive thing even if you don’t agree that all of these things are equally realistic threats, or threats on the same level.2

The FLI's digitized version of the target list. Click the image to view their interactive version.

The FLI’s digitized version of the target list. Click the image to view their interactive version.

The target list, mapped out as the FLI did above, is already pretty impressive. While I was at the conference, I got the idea that it wouldn’t be that hard to reconfigure a few parts of the NUKEMAP code to allow me to import huge numbers of target lists in the right format. NUKEMAP already supports the targeting of multiple nukes (the feature is a little cryptic — you create a detonation, then click “launch multiple,” then move the cursor and can then create another one, and repeat as necessary), but it didn’t have any automatic way of importing a large number of settings. Once I had done that, I then thought, what would it look like if I used realistic weather data to determine the fallout patterns from surface bursts? It only took a little bit of further work to write a script that can poll OpenWeatherMap‘s public API and grab information about real-time wind speed and direction information about any given set of coordinates.3 This renders quite an impressive image, though to do this for some 1,154 targets requires a lot of RAM (about 1.5 GB) and a fast computer. So it’s not something one wants to necessarily do all the time.

I have captured the results as a series of interactive screenshots, to better save you (and your web browser) the trouble of trying to render these yourself. You can see how changing the yield dramatically changes the fallout (assuming surface bursts, of course). The interactive viewer is available by clicking the image below, or this link.4

Screenshot of my interactive viewer for the nuclear war plan. Click to view.

Screenshot of my interactive viewer for the nuclear war plan. Click to view.

I also sampled weather data from a few days in a row, to see what differences it made from a practical standpoint. It is remarkable how different wind speed and direction can vary from day to day. In some of these “simulations,” Copenhagen, Denmark, avoids fallout. In others, it does not. Under some weather conditions (and yield selections), northern Japan gets some fallout from an attack on the Soviet-controlled Kuril Islands; in others, it does not. The NUKEMAP’s fallout estimator is, of course, a very simplified model, but even with that you can get a sense of how much difference a shift in the winds can make.

Having done that, I started to wonder: what would the casualties of such an attack look like? I don’t have population density data of the relevant areas from 1956 that has sufficient granularity to be used with my normal NUKEMAP casualty estimating script, but I figured that even the present-day population figures would be interesting. If you try to query the casualty database with over a thousand targets it just says “no,” so I wrote another script that would query it target-by-target and tally the results.

The results were a bit staggering. I mean, I assumed it would be a large number. But they are really large numbers. Some of this is because the casualty script is double-counting “victims” when they are inside the relevant blast areas of multiple detonations. At the moment, there’s no easy way around that (even for a small number of detonations, keeping track of who is already “dead” would require a lot of time and processing power, and to do it on the scale of a thousand is just not possible with the way it is set up currently).

An example of an area where a lot of "double-counting" is taking place — St. Petersburg. The circles show various pressure rings for 1 Mt weapons, which are used by NUKEMAP to calculate casualties. Maybe just a little overkill...

An example of an area where a lot of “double-counting” is taking place — St. Petersburg. The circles show various pressure rings for 1 Mt weapons, which are used by NUKEMAP to calculate casualties. Maybe just a little overkill…

On the other hand, the casualty estimate does not take into account fallout-related casualties, or the long-term casualties caused by the destruction of so much infrastructure. The target list also doesn’t tell us how many targets were, in fact, targeted redundantly with multiple weapons — the idea that it might have been “one nuke, one target” is definitely an incorrect one. Even before World War II had completely ended, US planners for nuclear war against the Soviet Union understood that not every bomb would make it to a target, and so planned for multiple weapons to be targeted on each. So “double-killing” those people in some of these locations is probably not so wrong. It likely isn’t all that crazy to think of these numbers as back-of-the-envelope estimates for what would result if you waged this kind of attack today (which is not to imply that the US would necessarily do such a thing). But I don’t want anyone to think I am implying any kind of real certainty here. I would, in fact, be dubious of anyone, at any time, implying a lot of certainty about these kinds of things, because we (fortunately) lack very much first-hand experience with this kind of “data,” outside of the results at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were in many ways particular to their time and place.

Casualty figures, of course, require making assumptions about the size of the nuclear weapons used, as well as the fuzing settings (airbursts generate far less downwind fallout in comparison to surface bursts, but they can greatly increase the casualties for people in civilian structures). For 1956, there would have been a “mix” of yields and types of weapons. We don’t have data on that to my knowledge. As a simplifying assumption, I just ran the casualty calculation with a number of yields, and with both surface burst and airbursts (optimized to increase the range of the 5 psi blast area) options. For the sake of space and avoiding the appearance of false precision, I have rounded them to their nearest million below:

surface burst airburst
injuries fatalities injuries fatalities
10 Mt 259 239 517 304
5 Mt 210 171 412 230
1 Mt 120 70 239 111
500 kt 89 46 185 77
100 kt 39 16 94 30
50 kt 25 10 66 19

At first I thought some of these numbers just seemed fantastical. Russia today only has a population of 140 million or so. How could we get up to numbers so high? Some of this is, again, because of double-counting, especially with the very big bomb — if you run a 10 Mt bomb on Moscow kills 5.5 million people, and injures 4 million, by NUKEMAP’s estimate, which combined is 70% of the 13 million people in the area of the 1 psi blast radius of such a weapon. (If that seems high, remember that a 10 Mt bomb goes well outside the city of Moscow itself — the Great Moscow Metro Region is about 16 million people total.) Since a large number of nukes were targeted around Moscow, that’s a lot of double counting, especially when you use them with such high-yield weapons.

So the very-big numbers I would take with a very hefty grain of salt. NUKEMAP’s casualty estimator really isn’t meant for guessing multiple, overlapping damage areas. At best, it attempts to give back-of-the-envelope estimates for single detonations. Separately, the US arsenal at the time was around 10,000 megatons worth of destructive power. So they obviously couldn’t have been (and wouldn’t have been) all multi-megaton monsters. But, all the same, I don’t think it’s at all improbable that the multi-megaton monsters that were in the arsenal would have been targeted at heavily populated regions, like Moscow. Especially given the fact that, again, there would have been multiple nukes aimed at each target.

I also thought it would be interesting to take the casualties and break them apart by region. Here’s where I found some really startling results, using a 1 Megaton (1,000 kiloton) airburst as my “model” detonation, again in millions:

injuries fatalities
Soviet Union 111 55
Warsaw Pact 23 10
China + North Korea 104 46
239 111

To make this point more clearly: 820 of the 1,154 targets were inside the Soviet Union proper. They are responsible for 48% of the casualties in the above scenario. Non-Soviet countries in the Warsaw Pact (Eastern Europe, more or less), were responsible for “only” 188 of the targets, and 9% of the casualties. China and North Korea had only 146 of the targets, but were accountable for 43% of the casualties. Which is to say, each “detonation” in the USSR on average produced around 203,000 casualties on average, each one in Eastern Europe around 176,000, and each one in Asia is over 1 million. That’s kind of bananas.

Now, these use modern (2011) population density figures, not those of 1956. But it’s still a pretty striking result. Why would this be? Partially because the Asian targets seem to be primarily in large cities. Many of the Soviet targets, by contrast, are of pretty isolated areas — remote military airfields in some cases — that only kill a few hundred people. It would make for a very interesting study to really get into the “weeds” of this target plan, and to sort out — systematically — what exactly was being targeted in each location, as best as we can. If we did that, we’d possibly be able to guess at whether an airburst or a surface burst was called for, and potentially even be able to judge target priorities, though the “bomb-as-you-go” method of attack used in the 1950s probably means that even low-priority targets would get nuked early on if they were on a path to a higher-priority one.

Total megatonnage of the US nuclear stockpile — nearly 10 gigatons by 1956, climbing to a peak of over 20 gigatons in 1959. Source: US Department of Energy

Total megatonnage of the US nuclear stockpile — nearly 10 gigatons by 1956, climbing to a peak of over 20 gigatons in 1959. Source: US Department of Energy

What does this exercise tell us? Two things, in my mind. One, this 1956 target list is pretty nuts, especially given the high-yield characteristics of the US nuclear stockpile in 1956. This strikes me as going a bit beyond mere deterrence, the consequence of letting military planners have just a little bit too much freedom in determining what absolutely had to have a nuclear weapon placed on it.

The second is to reiterate how amazing it is that this got declassified in the first place. When I had heard about it originally, I was pretty surprised. The US government usually considered target information to be pretty classified, even when it is kind of obvious (we target Russian nuclear missile silos? You don’t say…). The reason, of course, is that if you can go very closely over a target list, you can “debug” the mind of the nuclear strategist who made it — what they thought was important, what they knew, and what they would do about their knowledge. Though times have changed a lot since 1956, a lot of those assumptions are probably still at least partially valid today, so they tend to keep that sort of thing under wraps. These NUKEMAP “experiments” are quick and cheap approaches to making sense of this new information, and as the creator of the NUKEMAP, let me say that I think “quick and cheap” is meant as a compliment. To analyze something quickly and cheaply is to spark new ideas quickly and cheaply, and you can always subject your new ideas to more careful analytical scrutiny once you’ve had them. I hope that someone in the future will give this target data some real careful attention, because I have no doubt that it still contains many insights and surprises.

Notes
  1. Because there has been some confusion about what this list is, I want to clarify a bit here. It is a “Weapons Requirements Study,” which is to say, it’s the way in which the US Air Force Strategic Air Command said, “here are all the things we might want to nuke, if we could.” The might and if we could parts are important, because they are what makes this difference from an actual war plan, which is to say, “what we would actually do in the event of a nuclear war.” The might means that not necessarily all of these targets would have been nuked in any given war situation, but indicates the sorts of things that they considered to be valid targets. The if we could means that this would require more weapons than they could afford to use at the time. In 1956, the US stockpile contained “only” 3,692 warheads. This target list is meant to imply that it needed to be bigger, that is, that by 1959 they would want more weapons to be produced. So by 1959 they had 12,298 weapons — more than three times as many. Why so many weapons for the same number of targets? Because, as noted in the post below, the idea of one-nuke, one-target isn’t how they planned it. Anyway, the long and short of it is, this isn’t exactly the same thing as a war plan, much less for 1956. It may over-count, but it also probably under-counts (because it ignores tactical use, targets of opportunity, the overkill that would occur when targets were multiple-targeted, etc.). But it does give you a flavor of the war planning that was going on, and is probably closer to that than any other document that has been released for this time. As for how that would affect what would have happened in 1956, it’s hard to say, but this is in line with many of the other things we know about nuclear war planning at that time, so I think it is a fair illustration.
  2. I think my students were probably the most happy that FLI digitized all of this target data because if they hadn’t, I was going to force my undergrads who take my data visualization course to do it in the name of a practical example of what “crowdsourcing” can mean.
  3. In some cases, OpenWeatherMap did not have information about some of the coordinates. In such cases, the script averaged the missing point from several surrounding points, weighting them by distance. The results it gives in doing this seem plausible enough. For each time I ran it, there were only about two or three missing pieces of data.
  4. For those who want to look at the dataset themselves, the CSV file that the visualization uses is available here.

Silhouettes of the bomb

You might think of the explosive part of a nuclear weapon as the “weapon” or “bomb,” but in the technical literature it has its own kind of amusingly euphemistic name: the “physics package.” This is the part of the bomb where the “physics” happens — which is to say, where the atoms undergo fission and/or fusion and release energy measured in the tons of TNT equivalent.

Drawing a line between that part of the weapon and the rest of it is, of course, a little arbitrary. External fuzes and bomb fins are not usually considered part of the physics package (the fuzes are part of the “arming, fuzing, and firing” system, in today’s parlance), but they’re of course crucial to the operation of the weapon. We don’t usually consider the warhead and the rocket propellant to be exactly the same thing, but they both have to work if the weapon is going to work. I suspect there are many situations where the line between the “physics package” and the rest of the weapon is a little blurry. But, in general, the distinction seems to be useful for the weapons designers, because it lets them compartmentalize out concerns or responsibilities with regards to use and upkeep.

Physics package silhouettes of some of the early nuclear weapon variants. The Little Boy (Mk-1) and Fat Man (Mk-3) are based on the work of John Coster-Mullen. All silhouette portraits are by me — some are a little impressionistic. None are to any kind of consistent scale.

The shape of nuclear weapons was from the beginning one of the most secret aspects about them. The casing shapes of the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs were not declassified until 1960. This was only partially because of concerns about actual weapons secrets — by the 1950s, the fact that Little Boy was a gun-type weapon and Fat Man was an implosion weapon, and their rough sizes and weights, were well-known. They appear to have been kept secret for so long in part because the US didn’t want to draw too much attention to the bombing of the cities, in part because we didn’t want to annoy or alienate the Japanese.

But these shapes can be quite suggestive. The shapes and sizes put limits on what might be going on inside the weapon, and how it might be arranged. If one could have seen, in the 1940s, the casings of Fat Man and Little Boy, one could pretty easily conjecture about their function. Little Boy definitely has the appearance of a gun-type weapon (long and relatively thin), whereas Fat Man clearly has something else going on with it. If all you knew was that one bomb was much larger and physically rounder than the other, you could probably, if you were a clever weapons scientist, deduce that implosion was probably going on. Especially if you were able to see under the ballistic casing itself, with all of those conspicuously-placed wires.

In recent years we have become rather accustomed to seeing pictures of retired weapons systems and their physics packages. Most of them are quite boring, a variation on a few themes. You have the long-barrels that look like gun-type designs. You have the spheres or spheres-with-flat ends that look like improved implosion weapons. And you then have the bullet-shaped sphere-attached-to-a-cylinder that seems indicative of the Teller-Ulam design for thermonuclear weapons.

Silhouettes of compact thermonuclear warheads. Are the round ends fission components, or spherical fusion components? Things the nuke-nerds ponder.

There are a few strange things in this category, that suggest other designs. (And, of course, we don’t have to rely on just shapes here — we have other documentation that tells us about how these might work.) There is a whole class of tactical fission weapons that seem shaped like narrow cylinders, but aren’t gun-type weapons. These are assumed to be some form of “linear implosion,” which somewhat bridges the gap between implosion and gun-type designs.

All of this came to mind recently for two reasons. One was the North Korean photos that went around a few weeks ago of Kim Jong-un and what appears to be some kind of component to a ballistic case for a miniaturized nuclear warhead. I don’t think the photos tell us very much, even if we assume they are not completely faked (and with North Korea, you never know). If the weapon casing is legit, it looks like a fairly compact implosion weapon without a secondary stage (this doesn’t mean it can’t have some thermonuclear component, but it puts limits on how energetic it can probably be). Which is kind of interesting in and of itself, especially since it’s not every day that you get to see even putative physics packages of new nuclear nations.

Stockpile milestones chart from Pantex's website. Lots of interesting little shapes.

Stockpile milestones chart from Pantex’s website. Lots of interesting little shapes.

The other reason it came to mind is a chart I ran across on Pantex’s website. Pantex was more or less a nuclear-weapons assembly factory during the Cold War, and is now a disassembly factory. The chart is a variation on one that has been used within the weapons labs for a few years now, my friend and fellow-nuclear-wonk Stephen Schwartz pointed out on Twitter, and shows the basic outlines of various nuclear weapons systems through the years. (Here is a more up-to-date one from the a 2015 NNSA presentation, but the image has more compression and is thus a bit harder to see.)

For gravity bombs, they tend to show the shape of the ballistic cases. For missile warheads, and more exotic weapons (like the “Special Atomic Demolition Munitions,” basically nuclear land mines — is the “Special” designation really necessary?), they often show the physics package. And some of these physics packages are pretty weird-looking.

Some of the weirder and more suggestive shapes in the chart. The W30 is a nuclear land mine; the W52 is a compact thermonuclear warhead; the W54 is the warhead for the Davy Crockett system, and the W66 is low-yield thermonuclear weapon used on the Sprint missile system.

A few that jump out as especially odd:

  • PowerPoint Presentation

    Is the fill error meaningful, or just a mistake? Can one read too much into a few blurred pixels?

    In the Pantex version (but not the others), the W59 is particular in that it has an incorrectly-filled circle at the bottom of it. I wonder if this is an artifact of the vectorization process that went into making these graphics, and a little more indication of the positioning of things than was intended.

  • The W52 has a strange appearance. It’s not clear to me what’s going on there.
  • The silhouette of the W30 is a curious one (“worst Tetris piece ever” quipped someone on Twitter), though it is of an “Atomic Demolition Munition” and likely just shows some of the peripheral equipment to the warhead.
  • The extreme distance between the spherical end (primary?) and the cylindrical end (secondary?) of the W-50 is pretty interesting.
  • The W66 warhead is really strange — a sphere with two cylinders coming out of it. Could it be a “double-gun,” a gun-type weapon that decreases the distance necessary to travel by launching two projectiles at once? Probably not, given that it was supposed to have been thermonuclear, but it was an unusual warhead (very low-yield thermonuclear) so who knows what the geometry is.

There are also a number of warheads whose physics packages have never been shown, so far as I know. The W76, W87, and W88, for example, are primarily shown as re-entry vehicles (the “dunce caps of the nuclear age” as I seem to recall reading somewhere). The W76 has two interesting representations floating around, one that gives no real feedback on the size/shape of the physics package but gives an indication of its top and bottom extremities relative to other hardware in the warhead, another that portrays a very thin physics package that I doubt is actually representational (because if they had a lot of extra space, I think they’d have used it).1

Some of the more simple shapes — triangles, rectangles, and squares, oh my!

Some of the more simple shapes — triangles, rectangles, and squares, oh my!

What I find interesting about these secret shapes is that on the one hand, it’s somewhat easy to understand, I suppose, the reluctance to declassify them. What’s the overriding public interest for knowing what shape a warhead is? It’s a hard argument to make. It isn’t going to change how to vote or how we fund weapons or anything else. And one can see the reasons for keeping them classified — the shapes can be revealing, and these warheads likely use many little tricks that allow them to put that much bang into so compact a package.

On the other hand, there is something to the idea, I think, that it’s hard to take something seriously if you can’t see it. Does keeping even the shape of the bomb out of public domain impact participatory democracy in ever so small a way? Does it make people less likely to treat these weapons as real objects in the world, instead of as metaphors for the end of the world? Well, I don’t know. It does make these warheads seem a bit more out of reach than the others. Is that a compelling reason to declassify their shapes? Probably not.

As someone on the “wrong side” of the security fence, I do feel compelled to search for these unknown shapes — a defiant compulsion to see what I am not supposed to see, perhaps, in an act of petty rebellion. I suspect they look pretty boring — how different in appearance from, say, the W80 can they be? — but the act of denial makes them inherently interesting.

Notes
  1. One amusing thing is that several sites seem to have posted pictures of the arming, fuzing, and firing systems of these warheads under the confusion that these were the warheads. They are clearly not — they are not only too small in their proportions, but they match up exactly to declassified photos of the AF&F systems (they are fuzes/radars, not physics packages).

5 Adventurous Facts About Milford Sound

Milford Sound is without a doubt one of New Zealand’s most iconic destinations. When you’re dreaming about your trip, everything’s perfect. You see sunny blue skies, snow capped peaks, perfect photographs and a peaceful elegance… and you blind yourself to the possibility of unpredictable weather.

But Milford holds a few secrets that only a local will tell you, secrets that will inspire your sense of adventure.

1. Milford Sound is known as the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand.

With an average of almost 7,000mm of rainfall across 183 days of the year, I wouldn’t rely on getting a tan in Milford Sound. But don’t worry – something incredible happens when it rains…

Kayaking Milford Sound
Kayakers exploring the misty Milford Sound

2. Don’t worry about the weather, the perfect day is rain.

Sure, sunny blue skies are nice for keeping the camera dry, but the true explorer will pray for rain. The enormous granite peaks don’t absorb a drop of water and they have no beaches. The result is thousands of stunning waterfalls flowing straight into the fiord.

Kayaking Milford Sound Waterfall
Front row seats to a spectacular waterfall

3. The ocean is black.

The fiord is hundreds of meters deep, but the rainfall creates a layer of fresh water up to 6 meters deep, which sits on top of the ocean. All this rainfall washes a tannin from the forest, which stains the fresh water, resulting in its unique black appearance.

Kayaking Milford Sound
The deep, black, moody waters of Milford Sound

4. Milford Sound is NOT the Milford Track.

This is one of the most misunderstood facts about Milford. Milford Sound itself was regarded as the 8th Wonder of the World by Rudyard Kipling, it’s a fiord that’s surrounded by towering peaks, lush rainforest and incredible marine life.

The Milford Track is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, and a very different experience to visiting Milford Sound. The hike is absolutely stunning, but the local government allows 90 people on the track each day (50 guided, 40 unguided), so it can get a little crowded. Plus you can only hike it for 6 months of the year, whereas Milford Sound itself is accessible year-round.

Wouldn’t you rather wake up in Milford, sea kayak on the misty fiord as the sun rises, then venture off on a stunning bush hike that’s hidden from the crowds of tourists? I know I would.

The Milford Track
The mountains leading into Milford Sound

5. Save your time researching accommodation, there’s only one place to stay!

Flanked by the Darran Mountains, the Milford Lodge is 2 kilometres from the head of the fiord and it’s the only accommodation available in Milford Sound. If you’d like to splash out, upgrade to the luxury riverside chalets… you won’t be disappointed.

The Milford Lodge
Milford Lodge – Photo Credit @LarssonPhotography

Maintaining the bomb

We hear a lot about the benefits of “innovation” and “innovators.” It’s no small wonder: most of the stories we tell about social and technological “progress” are about a few dedicated people coming up with a new approach and changing the world. Historians, being the prickly and un-fun group that we are, tend to cast a jaundiced eye at these kinds of stories. Often these kinds of cases ignore the broader contextual circumstances that were required for the “innovation” to appear or take root, and often the way these are told tend to make the “innovator” seem more “out of their time” than they really were.

The "logo" of the Maintainers conference, which graces its T-shirts (!) and promotional material. I modeled the manhole design off of an actual manhole cover here in Hoboken (photograph taken by me).

The “logo” of the Maintainers conference, which graces its T-shirts (!) and promotional material. I modeled the manhole design off of an actual manhole cover here in Hoboken (photograph taken by me).

Two of my colleagues (Andy Russell and Lee Vinsel) at the Science and Technology Studies program here at the Stevens Institute of Technology (official tagline: “The Innovation University“) have been working on an antidote to these “innovation studies.” This week they are hosting a conference called “The Maintainers,” which focuses on an alternative view of the history of technology. The core idea (you can read more on the website) is that the bulk of the life and importance of a technology is not in its moment of “innovation,” but in the “long tail” of its existence: the ways in which it gets integrated into society, needs to be constantly repaired and upgraded, and can break down catastrophically if it loses its war against entropy. There is a lot of obvious resonance with infrastructure studies and stories in the news lately about what happens if you don’t repair your water systems, bridges, subway trains, and you-name-it.1

I’ve been thinking about how this approach applies to the history and politics of nuclear weapons. It’s pretty clear from even a mild familiarity with the history of the bomb that most of the stories about it are “innovation” narratives. The Manhattan Project is often taken as one of the canonical cases of scientific and technological innovation (in ways that I find extremely misleading and annoying). We hunger for those stories of innovation, the stories of scientists, industry, and the military coming together to make something unusual and exciting. When we don’t think the weapons-acquisition is a good idea (e.g., in the Soviet Union, North Korea, what have you), these innovation stories take on a more sinister tone or get diluted by allusions to espionage or other “help.” But the template is the same. Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb is of course one of the greatest works of the innovation narrative of the atomic bomb, starting, as it does, with a virtual lightning bolt going off in the mind of Leo Szilard.2

How do you service a Titan II? Very carefully. This is a RFHCO suit, required for being around the toxic fuel and oxidizer. Not the most comfortable of outfits. From Penson's Titan II Handbook.

How do you service a Titan II missile? Very carefully. This is a RFHCO suit, required for being around the toxic fuel and oxidizer. Not the most comfortable of outfits. From Penson’s Titan II Handbook.

What would a history of the bomb look like if we focused on the question of “maintenance”? We don’t have to guess, actually: one already exists. Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, which I reviewed on here and for Physics Today a few years ago, can be read in that light. Schlosser’s book is about the long-term work it takes to create a nuclear-weapons infrastructure, both in terms of producing the weapons and in terms of making sure they are ready to be used when you want them to be. And, of course, it’s about what can go wrong, either in the course of routine maintenance (the central case-study is that of a Titan II accident that starts when a “maintainer” accidentally drops a socket wrench) or just in the haphazard course of a technology’s life and interactions with the physical world (dropped bombs, crashed planes, things that catch on fire, etc.). (A documentary film based on Schlosser’s book premieres at the Tribeca Film festival this month, along with what sounds like a nuclear rave.)

There are other approaches we might fold into the “maintenance” of the bomb. Donald MacKenzie’s Inventing Accuracy uses the trope of invention, but the meat of the book is really about the way uncertainty about performance and reliability moved between the domains of engineering and policy. Hugh Gusterson’s anthropological study of the Livermore laboratory, Nuclear Rites, is particularly astute about the questions of the day-to-day work at a weapons laboratory and who does it. And the maintenance of infrastructure is a major sub-theme of Stephen Schwartz‘s classic edited volume on the costs of the nuclear complex, Atomic AuditBut these kinds of studies are, I think, rarer than they ought to be — we (and I include myself in this) tend to focus on the big names and big moments, as opposed to the slow-grind of the normal. 

There are two historical episodes that come to my mind when I think about the role of “maintenance” in the history of nuclear weapons. Non-coincidentally, both come at points in history where big changes were in the making: the first right after World War II ended, the second right after the Cold War ended.

Episode 1: The postwar slump

From the very beginning, the focus on the bomb was about its moment of creation. Not, in other words, on what it would take to sustain a nuclear complex. In our collective memory, a “Manhattan Project” is a story of intense innovation and creative invention against all odds. But there’s a lesser-known historical lesson in what happened right after the bombs went off, and it’s worth keeping in mind anytime someone invokes the need for another “Manhattan Project.”

The Manhattan Project, formally begun in late 1942, was consciously an effort to produce a usable atomic bomb in the shortest amount of time possible. It involved massive expenditure, redundant investigations, and involved difficult trade-offs between what would normally considered “research” and “development” phases. Plans for the first industrial-sized nuclear reactors, for example, were developed almost immediately after the first proof-of-concept was shown to work — normal stages of prototyping, scaling, and experimenting were highly compressed from normal industrial practices at the time, a fact noted by the engineers and planners who worked on the project. The rush towards realization of the new technology drove all other concerns. The nuclear waste generated by the plutonium production processes, for example, were stored in hastily-built, single-walled underground tanks that were not expected to be any more than short-term, wartime solutions.3 When people today refer to the Manhattan Project as a prototypical case of “throw a lot of money and expertise at a short-term problem,” they aren’t entirely wrong (even though such an association leaves much out).

J. Robert Oppenheimer (at right) was proud face of the successful "innovation" of the Manhattan Project. It is telling, though, that he left Los Alamos soon after the war ended. Source: Google LIFE image archive.

J. Robert Oppenheimer (at right) was proud face of the successful “innovation” of the Manhattan Project. It is telling, though, that he left Los Alamos soon after the war ended. Source: Google LIFE image archive.

After the end of World War II, though, the future of the American nuclear complex was uncertain. In my mind this liminal period is as interesting as the wartime period, though it doesn’t get as much cultural screen time. Would the US continue to make nuclear weapons? Would there be an agreement in place to limit worldwide production of nuclear arms (international control)? Would the atomic bomb significantly change US expenditures on military matters, or would it become simply another weapon in the arsenal? What kind of postwar organization would manage the wartime-creations of the Manhattan Project? No one knew the answers to these questions — there was a swirl of contradictory hopes and fears held by lots of different stakeholders.

We know, in the end, what eventually worked out. The US created the civilian Atomic Energy Commission with the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, signed by President Truman in August 1946 (much later than the military had hoped). Efforts towards the “international control” of the atomic bomb fizzled out in the United Nations. The Cold War began, the arms race intensified, and so on.

But what’s interesting to me, here, is that period between the end of the war and things “working out.” Between August 1945 and August 1946, the US nuclear weapons infrastructure went into precipitous decline. Why? Because maintaining it was harder than building it in the first place. What needed to be maintained? First and foremost, there were issues in maintaining the human capital. The Manhattan Project was a wartime organization that dislocated hundreds of thousands of people. The working conditions were pretty rough and tumble — even during the war they had problems with people quitting as a result of them. When the war ended, a lot of people went home. How many? Exact numbers are hard to come by, but my rough estimate based on the personnel statistics in the Manhattan District History is that between August 1945 and October 1946, some 80% of the construction labor left the project, and some 30% of the operations and research labor left. Overall there was a shedding of some 60% of the entire Manhattan Project labor force.

Declines in Manhattan Project personnel from July 1945 through December 1946. Note the dramatic decrease between August and September 1945, and the slow decrease until October 1946, after the Atomic Energy Act was passed and when things started to get on a postwar footing (but before the Atomic Energy Commission fully took over in January 1947).

Declines in Manhattan Project personnel from July 1945 through December 1946. Note the dramatic decrease between August and September 1945, and the slow decrease until October 1946, after the Atomic Energy Act was passed and when things started to get on a postwar footing (but before the Atomic Energy Commission fully took over in January 1947). Reconstructed from this graph in the Manhattan District History.

Now, some of that can be explained as the difference between a “building” project and a “producing” project. Construction labor was already on a downward slope, but the trend did accelerate after August 1945. The dip in operations and research, though, is more troublesome — a steep decline in the number of people actually running the atomic bomb infrastructure, much less working to improve it.

Why did these people leave? In part, because the requirements of a “crash” program and a “long-term” program were very different in terms of labor. It’s more than just the geographical aspect of people going home. It also included things like pay, benefits, and work conditions in general. During the war, organized labor had mostly left the Manhattan Project alone, at the request of President Roosevelt and the Secretary of War. Once peace was declared, they got back into the game, and were not afraid to strike. Separately, there was a prestige issue. You can get Nobel Prize-quality scientists to work on your weapons program when you tell them that Hitler was threatening civilization, that they were going to open up a new chapter in world history, etc. It’s exciting to be part of something new, in any case. But if the job seems like it is just about maintaining an existing complex — one that many of the scientists were having second-thoughts on anyway — it’s not as glamorous. Back to the universities, back to the “real” work.4

And, of course, it’s a serious morale problem if you don’t think you laboratory is going to exist in a year or two. When the Atomic Energy Act got held up in Congress for over a year, it introduced serious uncertainty as to the future of Los Alamos. Was Los Alamos solely a wartime production or a long-term institution? It wasn’t clear.

Hanford reactor energy output, detail. Note that it went down after late 1945, and they did not recover their wartime capacity until late 1948. Source: detail from this chart which I got from the Hanford Declassified Document System.

Hanford reactor energy output, detail. Note that it went down after late 1945, and they did not recover their wartime capacity until late 1948. Source: detail from this chart which I got from the Hanford Declassified Document System.

There were also technical dimensions to the postwar slump. The industrial-sized nuclear reactors at Hanford had been built, as noted, without much prototyping. The result is that there was still much to know about how to run them. B Reactor, the first to go online, started to show problems in the immediate postwar. Some of the neutrons being generated from the chain reaction were being absorbed by the graphite lattice that served as the moderator. The graphite, as a result, was starting to undergo small chemical changed: it was swelling. This was a big problem. Swelling graphite could mean that the channels that stored fuel or let the control rods in could get warped. If that happened, the operator would no longer be in full control of the reactor. That’s bad. For the next few years, B Reactor was run on low power as a result, and the other reactors were prevented from achieving their full output until solutions to the problem were found. The result is that the Hanford reactors had around half the total energy output in the immediate postwar as they did during the wartime period — so they weren’t generating as much plutonium.

To what degree were the technical and the social problems intertwined? In the case of Los Alamos we have a lot of documentation from the period which describes the “crisis” of the immediate postwar, when they were hemorrhaging manpower and expertise. We also have some interesting documentation that implies the military was worried about what a postwar management situation might look like, if it was out of the picture — if the nuclear complex was to be run by civilians (as the Atomic Energy Act specified), they wanted to make sure that the key aspects of the military production of nuclear weapons were in “reliable” hands. In any case, the infrastructure, as it was, was in a state of severe decay for about a year as these things got worked out.

I haven't even touched on the issues of "maintaining" security culture — what goes under the term "OPSEC." There is so much that could be said about that, too! Image source: (Hanford DDRS #N1D0023596)

I haven’t even touched on the issues of “maintaining” security culture — what goes under the term “OPSEC.” There is so much that could be said about that, too! Image source: (Hanford DDRS #N1D0023596)

The result of all of this was the greatest secret of the early postwar: the United States had only a small amount of fissile material, a few parts of other bomb components, and no ready-to-use nuclear weapons. AEC head David Lilienthal recalled talking with President Truman in April 1947:

We walked into the President’s office at a few moments after 5:00 p.m. I told him we came to report what we had found after three months, and that the quickest way would be to ask him to read a brief document. When he came to a space I had left blank, I gave him the number; it was quite a shock. We turned the pages as he did, all of us sitting there solemnly going through this very important and momentous statement. We knew just how important it was to get these facts to him; we were not sure how he would take it. He turned to me, a grim, gray look on his face, the lines from his nose to his mouth visibly deepened. What do we propose to do about it?5

The “number” in question was the quantity of atomic bombs ready to use in an emergency. And it was essentially zero.6 Thus the early work of the AEC was re-building a postwar nuclear infrastructure. It was expensive and slow-going, but by 1950 the US could once again produce atomic bombs in quantity, and was in a position to suddenly start producing many types of nuclear weapons again. Thus the tedious work of “maintenance” was actually necessary for the future work of “innovation” that they wanted to happen.

Episode 2: The post-Cold War question

Fast-forward to the early 1990s, and we’re once again in at a key juncture in questions about the weapons complex. The Soviet Union is no more. The Cold War is over. What is the future of the American nuclear program? Does the United States still need two nuclear weapon design laboratories? Does it still need a diverse mix of warheads and launchers? Does it still need the “nuclear triad”? All of these questions were on the table.

What shook out was an interesting situation. The labs would be maintained, shifting their efforts away from the activities we might normally associate with innovation and invention, and towards activities we might instead associate with maintenance. So environmental remediation was a major thrust, as was the work towards “Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship,” which is a fancy term for maintaining the nuclear stockpile in a state of readiness. The plants that used to assemble nuclear weapons have converted into places where weapons are disassembled, and I’ve found it interesting that the imagery associated with these has been quite different than the typical “innovation” imagery — the people shown in the pictures are “technicians” more than “scientists,” and the prevalence of women seems (in my anecdotal estimation) much higher.

The question of what to do with the remaining stockpile is the most interesting. I pose the question like this to my undergraduate engineers: imagine you were given a 1960s Volkswagen Beetle and were told that once you were pretty sure it would run, but you never ran that particular car before. Now imagine you have to keep that Beetle in a garage for, say, 20 or 30 more years. You can remove any part from the car and replace it, if you want. You can run tests of any sort on any single component, but you can’t start the engine. You can build a computer model of the car, based on past experience with similar cars, too. How much confidence would you have in your ability to guarantee, with near 100% accuracy, that the car would be able to start at any particular time?

Their usual answer: not a whole lot. And that’s without telling them that the engine in this case is radioactive, too.

Graph of Livermore nuclear weapons designers with and without nuclear testing experience. The PR spin put on this is kind of interesting in and of itself: "Livermore physicists with nuclear test experience are reaching the end of their careers, and the first generation of stockpile stewards is in its professional prime." Source: Arnie Heller, "Extending the Life of an Aging Weapon," Science & Technology Review (March 2012).

Graph of Livermore nuclear weapons designers with and without nuclear testing experience. The PR spin put on this is kind of interesting in and of itself: “Livermore physicists with nuclear test experience are reaching the end of their careers, and the first generation of stockpile stewards is in its professional prime.” Source: Arnie Heller, “Extending the Life of an Aging Weapon,” Science & Technology Review (March 2012).

Like all analogies there are inexact aspects to it, but it sums up some of the issues with these warheads. Nuclear testing by the United States ceased in 1992. It might come back today (who knows?) but the weapons scientists don’t seem to be expecting that. The warheads themselves were not built to last indefinitely — during the Cold War they would be phased out every few decades. They contain all sorts of complex materials and substances, some of which are toxic and/or radioactive, some of which are explosive, some of which are fairly “exotic” as far as materials go. Plutonium, for example, is metallurgically one of the most complex elements on the periodic table and it self-irradiates, slowly changing its own chemical structure.

Along with these perhaps inherent technical issues is the social one, the loss of knowledge. The number of scientists and engineers at the labs that have had nuclear testing experience is at this point approaching zero, if it isn’t already there. There is evidence that some of the documentary procedures were less than adequate: take the case of the mysterious FOGBANK, some kind of exotic “interstage” material that is used in some warheads, which required a multi-million dollar effort to come up with a substitute when it was discovered that the United States no longer had the capability of producing it.

So all of this seems to have a pretty straightforward message, right? That maintenance of the bomb is hard work and continues to be so. But here’s the twist: not everybody agrees that the post-Cold War work is actually “maintenance.” That is, how much of the stockpile stewardship work is really just maintaining existing capability, and how much is expanding it?

Summary of the new features of the B-61 Mod 12, via the New York Times.

Old warheads in new bottles? Summary of the new features of the B-61 Mod 12, via the New York Times.

The B-61 Mod 12 has been in the news a bit lately for this reason. The B-61 is a very flexible warhead system that allows for a wide range of yield settings for a gravity bomb. The Mod 12 has involved, among other things, an upgraded targeting and fuzing capability for this bomb. This makes the weapon very accurate and allows it to penetrate some degree into the ground before detonating. The official position is that this upgrade is necessary for the maintenance of the US deterrence position (it allows it, for example, to credibly threaten underground bunkers with low-yield weapons that would reduce collateral damage). So now we’re in a funny position: we’re upgrading (innovating?) part of a weapon in the name of maintaining a policy (deterrence) and ideally with minimal modifications to the warhead itself (because officially we are not making “new nuclear weapons”). Some estimates put the total cost of this program at a trillion dollars — which would be a considerable fraction of the total money spent on the entire Cold War nuclear weapons complex.

There are other places where this “maintenance” narrative has been challenged as well. The labs in the post-Cold War argued that they could only guarantee the stockpile’s reliability if they got some new facilities. Los Alamos got DARHT, which lets them take 3-D pictures of implosion in realtime, Livermore got NIF, which lets them play with fusion micro-implosions using a giant laser. A lot of money has been put forward for this kind of “maintenance” activity, and as you can imagine there was a lot of resistance. With all of it has come the allegations that, again, this is not really necessary for “maintenance,” that this is just innovation under the guise of maintenance. And if that’s the case, then that might be a policy problem, because we are not supposed to be “innovating” nuclear weapons anymore — that’s the sort of thing associated with arms races. For this reason, one major effort to create a warhead design that was alleged to be easier to maintain, the Reliable Replacement Warhead, was killed by the Obama administration in 2009.

"But will it work?" With enough money thrown at the problem, the answer is yes, according to Los Alamos. Source: National Security Science (April 2013).

“But will it work?” With enough money thrown at the problem, the answer is yes, according to Los Alamos. Source: National Security Science (April 2013).

So there has been a lot of money in the politics of “maintenance” here. What I find interesting about the post-Cold War moment is that “maintenance,” rather than being the shabby category that we usually ignore, has been moved to the forefront in the case of nuclear weapons. It is relatively easy to argue, “yes, we need to maintain these weapons, because if we don’t, there will be terrible consequences.” Billions of dollars are being allocated, even while other infrastructures in the United States are allowed to crumble and decline. The labs in particular have to walk a funny line here. They have an interest in emphasizing the need for further maintenance — it’s part of their reason for existence at this point. But they also need to project confidence, because the second they start saying that our nukes don’t work, they are going to run into even bigger policy problems.

And yet, it has been strongly alleged that under this cloak of maintenance, a lot of other kinds of activities might be taking place as well. So here is a perhaps an unusual politics of maintenance — one of the few places I’ve seen where there is a substantial community arguing against it, or at least against using it as an excuse to “innovate” on the sly.

Notes
  1. Andy and Lee just published a great article outlining their argument on Aeon Magazine: “Hail the maintainers.”
  2. “In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilard waited irritably one gray Depression morning for the stoplight to change. A trace of rain had fallen during the night; Tuesday, September 12, 1933, dawned cool, humid and dull. … The stoplight changed to green. Szilard stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woe, the shape of things to come.” Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986), 13. For a critical view of Rhodes, looking at how Rhodes’ mobilizes the trope of invention in his narrative, see esp. Hugh Gusterson, “Death of the authors of death: Prestige and creativity among nuclear weapons scientists,” in Mario Biagioli and Peter Galison, eds., Scientific authorship: Credit and intellectual property in science (New York: Routledge, 2003), 281-307.
  3. J. Samuel Walker, The Road to Yucca Mountain: The Development of Radioactive Waste Policy in the United States (Los Angeles/Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 2-6.
  4. Hence Edward Teller’s attempt to convince the scientists go to “back to the labs” to solve the H-bomb problem a few years later.
  5. David E. Lilienthal, The Journals of David E. Lilienthal, Volume II: The Atomic Energy Years, 1945-1950 (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), p. 165. Side-note: As Lilienthal was leaving Truman’s office, Truman told him that, “You have the most important thing there is. You must making a blessing of it or,” — and then Truman pointed to a large globe in the corner of the office — “we’ll blow all that to smithereens.”
  6. They had bomb cores, they had non-nuclear bomb assemblies, but there is little to suggest that they had anything ready to go on a short term — it would take weeks to assemble the weapons and get them into a state of readiness. The total cores on hand at Los Alamos at the end of 1945 was 2; for 1946 it was 9; for 1947 it was 13. Senator Brien McMahon later said that “when the [AEC] took over [in 1947] there were exactly two bombs in the locker,” Lilienthal himself later said that “we had one [bomb] that was probably operable when I first went off to Los Alamos [January 1947]; one that had a good chance of being operable.” Quoted in Gregg Herken, Brotherhood of the Bomb (New York: Henry Holt, 2002), 137 fn. 84. Lilienthal told Herken: “The politically significant thing is that there really were no bombs in a military sense… We were really almost without bombs, and not only that, we were without people, that was the really significant thing… You can hardly exaggerate the unreadiness of the U.S. military men at this time.” Quoted in Gregg Herken, The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988 [1981]), 196-197 (in the unnumbered footnote).

My discussion on privacy by having a Super Spook

One of many unanticipated things that popped through to my agenda this a week ago: I was expected to offer a personal talk to General Michael Hayden, the former director of the National safety Agency (1999-2005), as well as the Central Intelligence Agency (2006-2009). Hayden is at the Stevens Institute of tech (where we work) giving a talk within the President’s Distinguished Lecture Series, and also as along with might be found, area of the schedule would be to have him get yourself a glimpse associated with the kinds of things we have been around at Stevens he will dsicover interesting.

The team that met with General Michael Hayden last Wednesday. Hayden is second from left during the far side of table. The President of Stevens, Nariman Farvardin, is nearest towards digital camera. I will be at the table, on straight back. All pictures by Jeffrey Vock photography, for Stevens.

The team that met with General Michael Hayden final Wednesday. Hayden is 2nd from kept on far part associated with dining table. The President of Stevens, Nariman Farvardin, is nearest to your digital camera. I will be during the dining table, at straight back. All photos by Jeffrey Vock photography, for Stevens.

That which was strange, for me, had been that I was being included among those ideas. I know some of my visitors and friends will state, “oh, naturally they desired you there,” but I’m still a pretty small fry over here, an associate teacher within the humanities unit of an engineering school. Others people who offered speaks either went big laboratories or departments with apparent connections to the forms of things Hayden had been doing (age.g., simply because of its proximity towards Hudson River, Stevens does some extremely cutting-edge work with monitoring motorboat and aerial vehicle traffic, as well as its Computer Science division does a huge amount of work in cybersecurity). A junior historian of science will be invited to sit “at the dining table” aided by the General, the President of this Institute, plus couple of other essential individuals is not very obvious, so I had been amazed and grateful for the opportunity.

What exactly does the historian of secrecy tell among the “Super Spooks,” as my colleague, the science writer (and critic folks hegemony and war) John Horgan, dubbed Hayden? I pitched two various topics to the Stevens admin — one had been a mention what the annals of secrecy might inform us concerning the manner in which secrecy must certanly be discussed and privacy reform must certanly be attempted (one thing i have been contemplating and focusing on for a while, a policy-relevant distillation of my historic research), others was a discussion of NUKEMAP user habits (which countries bomb whom, employing a dataset of millions of digital “detonations” from 2013-2016). They plumped for the initial one, which astonished me personally slightly, since it had been a great deal less numbers-driven and outward-facing versus NUKEMAP talk.

Yours really. While you will notice, there was plenty of great gesturing happening all over while I happened to be talking. I know a primatologist will make one thing using this.

Yours truly. As you will notice, there was countless great gesturing going on all over while I was chatting. I am certain a primatologist might make something using this.

The talk I pitched towards the General covered several distinct points. First, I felt we needed seriously to quickly determine just what Science and tech Studies (STS) ended up being, as that’s the program I was representing, and it’s also not extremely well-known control outside academia. (The sub-head was, “AKA, Why should anyone care exactly what a historian of science considers secrecy?”) Now people who practice STS understand that there has been a number of disciplinary battles of exactly what STS is supposed become, but we offered the fundamental overview: STS is an interdisciplinary approach by humanists and social scientists that studies science and technology and their interactions with society. STS is sort of an umbrella-discipline that blends the real history, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology of science and technology, but in addition is affected, in some instances, by things like the analysis of therapy, governmental technology, and legislation, among other things. It really is generally empirical (but not constantly), frequently qualitative, but sometimes quantitative in its approach (e.g. bibliometrics, computational humanities). In short, We pitched, while many people have opinions on how science and technology “work” and exactly what their relationship has been culture (broadly construed), STS really tries to apply academic rigor (of numerous levels and definitions) to understanding these things.

Hayden ended up being more receptive towards value with this than i would have guessed, but this seemed simply to be because he majored in history (for both a B.A. and M.A., Wikipedia informs me), and contains plainly done countless reading around in governmental science. Individually I became pretty pleased about this, just because we historians, particularly at an engineering college, usually get asked what one can perform with a humanities level. Well, it is possible to run the CIA and also the NSA, how about that!

JV4_7757

When I provided a variation on talks I have provided before on history of privacy in the usa, and exactly what some typically common misunderstandings are. First, we pointed out that there are several effects in just acknowledging that secrecy in the usa features a history at all — that it is perhaps not “transhistorical,” having existed since time immemorial. It is possible to pin-point to beginnings of contemporary privacy fairly precisely: World War I has the emergence of numerous styles that become common later on, just like the focus on “technical” secrets additionally the first legislation (the Espionage Act) that relates to civilians and military. World War II saw a giant, unrelenting boom of this privacy system, with (literally) overflow quantities of criminal record checks (the FBI must requisition the DC Armory and turn it into a file vault), the increase of technical privacy (age.g. privacy of tools designs), the creation of new category groups (like “key,” developed in 1944), and, obviously, the Manhattan Project, whose implementation of privacy was in some methods quite groundbreaking. By the end of World War II, there clearly was a wondering juncture in which some approaches to category were handled in a pre-Cold War means, where privacy was merely a short-term situation because of ongoing hostilities, plus some started to move towards a more Cold War fashion, in which secrecy became a part of American life.

The top points are — and also this is really a prerequisite for purchasing whatever else i must say in regards to the topic — that American secrecy is reasonably new (early-to-mid 20th century forward), so it had a couple of definite points of beginning, your assumption your globe had been filled with increasingly dangerous information that needed government regulation had not been an ageless one, which it had changed in the long run in many different distinct and essential ways. Simply speaking, in the event that you accept which our secrecy could be the product of people acting in particular, contingent circumstances, it prevents you against seeing secrecy as a thing that simply “has to be” the way it’s today. It has been otherwise, it could have already been something different, it could be another thing in the future: the appeal to contingency, in this instance, is an interest agency, which, the capability for human beings to change the circumstances under which they find themselves. That is, needless to say, one of the classic policy-relevant “moves” by historians: to show your means the planet has come to be is not the only way it had become, and also to try to encourage a belief we will make options for just how it ought to be in the years ahead.

JV4_7755

General Hayden seemed to accept all of this pretty much. I ought to keep in mind that through the talk, he interjected with thoughts and reviews regularly. We appreciated this: he was undoubtedly focusing, in my experience and to the others. I know he’s done such things as this on a regular basis, visiting a laboratory or university, being put through all manner of presentations, and by this time he had been post-lunch, a couple of hours before giving their own talk. But he stayed along with it, for both me personally as well as the other presenters.

The rest of my talk (which was meant to be just 15 minutes, though i do believe it absolutely was more towards 25 with all of the side-discussions), had been framed as “Five fables about privacy that inhibit significant policy discussion and reform.” I’m not generally susceptible to the “five urban myths” sort of design of dealing with this (its more Buzzfeed than educational), but also for the objective of quickly finding a couple of arguments across I thought it designed for an okay framing unit. The “myths” I organized were as follows

Myth: Secrecy and democracy always conflict. This is actually the one which makes some my visitors blanche at first look over, but my point is that there are areas of society in which some types of secrecy need to exist to be able to encourage democracy in the first place, and there are places where transparency can it self be inhibiting. The overall (unsurprisingly?) was very amenable to this. Then I result in the move that the trick is to verify we do not get secrecy in areas where it does conflict with democracy. The control of information can easily conflict with the dependence on general public understanding (and right-to-know) that produces an Enlightenment-style democracy function properly. But we needn’t view it as an all-or-nothing thing — we “simply” have to make certain the secrecy is in which it ought to be (sufficient reason for proper oversight), and the transparency is where it ought to be. Hayden seemed to accept this.

My most useful appearance.

I suspect I seem like this over If only I did.

Myth: Secrecy and security are synonymous. Secrecy isn’t the same as security, but they are often lumped together (both consciously rather than). Privacy could be the technique, security could be the goal. Periodically secrecy promotes safety — and there are occasions in which secrecy inhibits it. This, we noted, had been one of the conclusions associated with the 9/11 Commission Report and, that lack of information sharing had seriously crippled United states police force and intelligence in terms of anticipating the assaults of 2001. We also remarked that the habitual utilization of privacy resulted in its devaluation — that when you begin stamping “TOP SECRET” on every thing, it starts to suggest a lot less. The overall strongly consented with this. He additionally alluded towards the fact that no body should really be keeping any kind of government emails on private servers thees times, as the system was so complicated that literally no one ever knew should they were going to be generating categorized information or perhaps not — and that here is a problem.

I also noted that the impressionreal or otherwise not, that secrecy was being rampantly misapplied had historically had tremendously negative affects on public self-confidence in governance, which could cause a variety of problems for those of you tasked with said governance. Hayden took to this point especially, thought it absolutely was important, and mentioned an example. He said that the US compromise of this 1970s would be to get Congressional “buy-in” to virtually any Executive or federal categorized programs through oversight committees. He argued your US, in this sense, ended up being alot more modern in relation to oversight than numerous European security agencies, who really run exclusively in purview of the Executive. He said which he thought the NSA had done a great job of getting everything cleared by Congress, of earning a public situation for doing exactly what it did. But, he acknowledged that plainly this work had failed — the public did maybe not have a lot of confidence that the NSA had been precisely seen over, or that its actions had been justified. He viewed this being a significant problem for future years, exactly how US intelligence agencies will run in the expectations regarding the United states people. We appear to recall him saying (i will be reporting this from memory) that ended up being simply an element of the reality that United States cleverness and police must learn how to live with — so it might hamper them in certain means, however it had been a requirement of success in the US context.

I forget exactly what provoked this response, but I couldn't perhaps not add it right here.

I forget just what provoked this reaction, but i possibly couldn’t not consist of it right here.

Myth: Secrecy is really a wall surface. This will be a little, tiny intervention we produced in regards to the metaphors of privacy. We explore it as walls, as cloaks, and curtains. The secrecy-is-a-barrier metaphor could very well be the most typical (and gets paired a great deal with information-is-a-liquid, e.g. leaks and flows), and, if I can channel the thesis of this class I took with George Lakoff in the past, metaphors matter. There isn’t a whole lot you are able to do having a wall other than tolerate it, tear it down, discover a way around, etc. We argued here that secrecy certainly feels such as for instance a wall when you are regarding other “part” of it — but it is not merely one. If it absolutely was one, it would be worthless for people (the only real building manufactured from just walls is really a tomb). Privacy is a lot more like a number of doors. (doorways, in turn, are really simply temporary walls. Whoa.) Doors become walls if you cannot open them. Nevertheless they can be exposed — often by many people (people that have tips, if they are locked), sometimes by all people (if they’re unlocked and general public). Secrecy systems change and change over time. Who’s usage of the doors changes and, sometimes as time passes. This returns on contingency issue once again, and refocuses our attention less on fact secrecy itself but just how it really is utilized, when access is granted versus withheld, and so on. As being a historian, my task is largely to go through the doors of past which used to be locked, but are now actually available for the researcher.

Myth: Secrecy is monolithic. That is, “Secrecy” is one thing. You’ve got it or you cannot. As you care able to see from above, I do not accept this process. It creates government secrecy about us-versus-them (whenever in theory “they” are representatives of “us”), it generates it seem like secrecy reform could be the act of “getting reduce” secrecy. It make secrecy an all-or-nothing idea. This is certainly my big, overarching point on secrecy: it is not a very important factor. Secrecy is it self a metaphor; it derives from the Latin secerno: to separate, component, sunder; to tell apart; setting apart. It is about dividing the entire world into kinds of individuals, information, places, things. It’s this that “category” is approximately and what it means: you’re “classifying” some areas of the planet as being just available to some people of the world. The metaphor doesn’t become a reality, however, without methods (and right here we borrow from anthropology). Practices are the individual tasks which make the concept or goal of privacy genuine on the planet. Concentrate on the practices, and you also reach one’s heart of what makes a secrecy regime tick, you see just what “secrecy” means at any given stage.

And, per my earlier emphasis on history, this might be vital: looking at the reputation for privacy, we can begin to see the techniques move and change over time, some entering presence at particular points for specific reasons (see, e.g., my reputation for key atomic patenting methods during World War II), some going away over times, some getting changed or amplified (e.g., Groves’ amplification of compartmentalization throughout the Manhattan venture — the idea preceded Groves, but he was the main one who really imposed it on an unprecedented scale). We additionally realize that some techniques will be the people that really screw up democratic deliberation, and some of those are the people we think about since certainly heinous (just like the FBI’s COINTELPRO program). However some are relatively benign. Focusing on the practices provides something to focus on for reform, something other than stating that we truly need “less” secrecy. We could enumerate and historicize the practices (I have identified about four core practices that appear to be in the centre of any privacy regime, whether making an atomic bomb or even a fraternity’s initiation rites, but also for the Manhattan task there were a large number of discrete techniques that have been used to try and protect the privacy of work). We could also determine which techniques are counterproductive, those fail to work, those produce unintended effects. A practice-based method of secrecy, we argue, is key to transforming our desires for reform into actionable results.

Hayden's lecture in De Baum auditorium, at Stevens.

Hayden’s lecture in De Baum auditorium, at Stevens.

Myth: The answer to privacy reform is stability. An individual pet peeve of my own are interests “balance” — we are in need of a “balance of secrecy and transparency/openness/democracy,” exactly what have you. It seems nice. Actually, it seems so nice that literally no one will disagree along with it. The fact the ACLU as well as the NSA can both agree that we need to have stability is, i do believe, evidence so it means nothing at all, that it’s a statement without effects. (Hayden seemed to find this pretty amusing.) The total amount argument commits numerous the sins I’ve currently enumerated. It assumes secrecy (and openness) are monolithic entities. It assumes you will get some kind of “mix” of those pure states (but nobody can articulate exactly what that will look like). It encourages all-or-nothing contemplating secrecy if you are a reformer. Once more, the antidote with this approach is a concentrate on methods and domains: we are in need of techniques of privacy and openness in various domains in United states life, and emphasizing the effects of those practices (or their not enough presence) gives us actionable steps forward.

I ought to say explicitly: I am no activist by any means, and my personal politics are, I like to think, rather nuanced and delicate. I am certain one can read a lot of “party lines” to the above positions if one wants to, but I generally speaking don’t mesh well with any strong roles. I will be a historian plus an scholastic — i actually do many work attempting to understand positions of all edges of a debate, therefore rubs down on me personally that folks of most positions can make reasonable arguments, and that you will find likely no easy solutions. That said, I don’t think the existing system of privacy works perfectly, either through the position of American freedom or the position of American safety. As I think we make clear above, I do not accept the concept these are contradictory goals.

Hayden did actually take my points well and mainly trust them. Inside discussion afterwards, some certain examples had been brought up. I was surprised to listen to (and he said it later on in their talk, and so I do not think this may be a private viewpoint) that he sided with Apple into the recent instance regarding the FBI and “cracking” the iPhone’s security. He felt that while the legal and Constitutional problems most likely sat inside FBI’s camp, he thought the practice from it had been a bad idea: the security compromise for all iPhones will be too great become beneficial. He did not choose the argument that you might simply take action as soon as, or that it would stay key once it absolutely was done. We thought this is a astonishing position for him to take.

Generally speaking, Hayden did actually agree totally that 1. the classification system since it exists wasn’t working effortlessly or effortlessly, 2. that over-classification had been a real problem and led to lots of the huge dilemmas we have along with it (he called the Snowden leakages “a result and not a cause”), 3. that people within the government are going to have to understand that the “price of doing business” in america had been accepting that you would must make compromises in that which you could understand and everything could do, due to the needs of our democracy.

Hayden's final slide: "Buckle up: it will be a tough century." Though the final one ended up being no stroll in park, either...

Hayden’s last slip: “Buckle up: it will be a tough century.” Though i am aware he’d concur that the very last one had been no walk inside park, either…

Hayden then went and provided a tremendously well-attended talk followed closely by a Q&A session. We live-Tweeted the whole lot; I have put together my tweets into a Storify, if you would like obtain the gist of just what he stated. He could be additionally offering a fresh book, that I suspect has its own of the exact same points inside it.

My concluding thoughts: I don’t trust plenty of Hayden’s jobs and actions. I will be a lot less confident than he could be that the NSA’s assist Congress, as an example, comprises appropriate oversight (it is plainly clear that Congressional committees could be “captured” by the agencies they oversee, sufficient reason for regards towards the NSA specifically, there appears to have been some pretty explicit deception tangled up in recent years). I will be not at all confident that drone hits do a net good inside regions which we employ them. I will be deeply troubled by such things as extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay, water boarding, and something that shades towards torture, deficiencies in adherence towards laws and regulations of war, or perhaps a not enough adherence towards the essential civil liberties our Constitution articulates while the American idea. Merely to put my views up for grabs. (also to make it clear, I do not necessarily think you can find “simple” methods to the problems worldwide, the center East, to America. But i’m deeply, inherently suspicious that the response to any of them involves doing items that are so deeply oppositional to these fundamental US army and Constitutional values.)

But, then again, we’d never go in control of the NSA or the CIA, either, and there is most likely no body who would ever go in control of said companies that I would accept on all fronts. The things I did respect about Hayden is that he had been ready to engage. He did not actually shirk from concerns. He additionally did not take the career that everything that the government has been doing, or is doing, is golden. But the majority crucial, for me, had been that he took some instead nuanced roles on some tough issues. The core of what I heard him state over and over had been your Hobbesian dilemma — your requirement for safety trumps all — cannot be given a complete turn in the United States. Even though we may disagree on how that works out in practice, which he ended up being willing to walk down that path, and never merely be saying it as platitude, implied something if you ask me. He was talking truth be told, and not just a celebration or policy line. That is a rare thing, i do believe, for previous high-ranking public officials (and not way too long away from workplace) who’re offering general public speaks — frequently they are quite dry, quite unsurprising. Hayden, whether you agree or disagree with him, is neither of these things.

2010s, CIA, Compartmentalization, Leslie Groves, NSA, Secrecy reform

Citation: Alex Wellerstein, “My conversation on secrecy with a Super Spook,” limited Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog, March 18, 2016, accessed April 27, 2017, http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2016/03/18/conversation-with-a-super-spook/.

Can You Really Increase Your Confidence Easily? Just Make Use Of These 7 Words

When confronted with a big challenge in which possible failure generally seems to lurk at every corner, you’ve probably heard the advice, “Be well informed!” But in which does self-confidence come from, and exactly how can you get more of it? Here are 3 effortless suggestions to increase your confidence and at the bottom see the 7 term phrase that works each time for instant confidence.

1. Steer clear of negativity and bring about the positivity

It is now time to really evaluate your internal group, including relatives and buddies. This is often a tough one, nonetheless it’s time and energy to you should think about getting away from those people who place you down and shred your confidence. Even a temporary break from Debbie Downer can make a massive difference and help you make strides toward more confidence.

Be positive, even when you’re perhaps not experiencing it quite yet. Put some good enthusiasm into your interactions with others and strike the ground operating, excited to begin with your following project. Stop emphasizing the issues that you experienced and as an alternative start to concentrate on solutions and making good changes.

2. Improve your gestures and image

That is where posture, smiling, attention contact, and speech gradually come into play. Simply the simple act of pulling your arms back offers other people the impression you are a confident individual. Smiling can not only make one feel better, but could make others feel more content around you. Imagine someone with good posture plus look and you’ll be envisioning somebody who is self-confident.

Go through the individual you’re talking with, perhaps not at your shoes–keeping eye contact shows self-confidence. Final, talk slowly. Research has proved that people who take the time to speak slowly and plainly feel more self-confidence and appear more self-confident to others. The added bonus is they are going to actually manage to understand what you’re saying.

Go the extra mile and style the hair, provide your self a clean shave, and gown well. Not only will this make us feel better about your self, but other people are more inclined to perceive you as successful and self-confident besides. An excellent tip: When you buy brand new outfit, training putting on it in the home first for past any wardrobe malfunctions before heading out.

3. Don’t accept failure and obtain gone the negative sounds in your head

Never ever surrender. Never ever accept failure. There’s a way to everything, so just why can you want to give in? Get this to your brand-new mantra. Succeeding through great adversity is just a huge self-confidence booster.

Minimal self-esteem is frequently brought on by the negative thoughts running through our minds for an endless track. If you should be constantly bashing yourself and saying you’re inadequate, aren’t appealing sufficient, aren’t smart sufficient or athletic enough, and on and on, you are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’re becoming what you’re preaching within your head, which’s bad. The very next time you hear that negativity in your thoughts, switch it instantly up to a good affirmation and keep it up until it strikes the standard of a self-confidence boost.

The 7 term Phrase To Say that actually works whenever

At any time you would like instant self-confidence, it could appear funny… but it surely works.  Simply say these 7 terms to your self.  “I’m so confident i will do anything.”

Top 10 Guest Photos 2015

Photo competitions. They’re not necessarily a good thing for an organisation like us to run, because there can only ever be one winner, and we leave hundreds of other people disappointed. But we can’t help ourselves, can we? That’s because it’s just too damn hard to take bad photos on our trips and we’re naturally compelled to share them with everyone. And what’s life without friendly competition amongst family and peers?!

But rather than showcase just the one winner, here’s the top 10, in no particular order, all taken by you guys on our trips in 2015. What a year it was!

We’ll tell you who the winner is also – don’t worry.

1. Aoraki Mt Cook & Lake Pukaki, ‘Rimu’ – Allen Cameron

Aoraki Mt Cook

This is a scene our guides never tire of seeing, no matter how many times they visit the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. There’s always the butterflies that flutter in your stomach as this landscape greets you. As you get closer, the waters of Lake Pukaki become more radiant and the slopes of Aoraki Mount Cook and the surrounding hills become more dramatic. After passing Lake Pukaki you’ll delve deeper into the National Park and get the chance to hike onto Mueller Ridge, where you’ll experience the most mind blowing mountain views in New Zealand.

2. Hiking Siberia Valley, ‘Tui’ – Bob Secor

Hiking Siberia Valley

You step out of the aircraft that has just dropped you into arguably New Zealand’s most isolated and dramatic wilderness area, and there’s just one way out from there; on foot. The plane takes off again and you realise it’s just you, your fellow hikers and the native birds accompanying you through this area of untouched beauty. Not a bad way to spend a couple of days. Well… technically you’ll get to take a jet boat ride down the Wilkin River as well, so it’s not just hiking!

3. Sand Boarding Te Pouahi Reserve, ‘Kauri’ – Bonnie Mullin

Sand Boarding

Sometimes it’s important to just be a kid again. And what better way than taking an old body board (not intended for anything other than use on the water, but hey – it’s fun!) and sliding down a huge sand dune and getting completely covered in sand? It can’t all be too civilised can it?

4. Swimming with a Turtle, ‘Tortuga’ – Charlotte Sherman

Swimming with a Turtle

If you don’t swim or at least see a turtle when you join us on our ‘Tortuga’ trip in the Galapagos Islands, then there will certainly be something wrong with the space/time continuum and we’ll have to look into getting into another business. Here’s the reason why we called the trip the ‘Tortuga’ – they’re everywhere and you never get sick of seeing them, especially in crystal clear water!

5. House on the Svelte, Patagonia, ‘Condor’ – Dennis Wilson

House on the Svelte

Patagonia has many faces, yes there’s the enormous granite peaks and glaciers of Torres Del Paine and Glaciares National Park, fiords and picture perfect lakes. There’s also the windswept plains dotted with grazing cattle and traditional “Gaucho” farm houses (now with solar power!). You find yourself wondering if you’ve stepped into a time machine.

6. Immaculate Forest Walk, Nelson Lakes National Park, ‘Rimu’ – Donal Rafferty

Immaculate Forest Walk

Can you see the hobbit in the trees in this shot? Well, there is no hobbit but you’ll be forgiven for expecting some sort of ancient creature to walk across the trail as you’re hiking in Nelson Lakes National Park. So no hobbits here, but you’ll probably be greeted by a South Island Robin – one of our most inquisitive native birds. They often peck at the ground you’ve walked on as they know your hiking boots may have opened up some soil for worms!

Skip straight to New Zealand Hiking Tours

7. Machu Picchu Selfie, ‘Jaguar’ – Jen Risser

Machu Picchu Selfie

Check out how happy Jen Risser is, after hiking for 3 days on the Inca Trail to get to Machu Picchu. We arrive at Machu Picchu super early in the morning before the sun comes up and get ahead of the numerous people who visit the site every day, but when the sun does come out, it shines directly down on the site all day – it’s an incredibly refreshing place to be. The other thing we’ve noticed about this photo is that it’s a reminder of how much of a big job it’d be to mow those lawns, just look at em!

8. Milford Sound Kayaking, ‘Rimu’ – Jim Lane

Milford Sound Kayaking

Believe it or not, photos like this are EXTREMELY rare. Not because it has captured a truly perfect moment in time for Jim and his son Ben Lane, in the world’s most spectacular fiord, but because it’s captured a person in a double sea kayak who isn’t engaged in an argument with their fellow paddler… For that reason, this photo is our winner! Who needs flat horizons anyway…

9. Blue Duck in Repose, ‘Manuka’ – Joyce Barbour

Blue Duck in Repose

Our native Whio (Blue Duck) are known here in New Zealand as the “whitewater duck”, as when they’re spotted, they are often seen riding the rapids in our streams and rivers. They are also extremely rare. Contrary to how it appears in this photo, they do actually have heads, and two legs.

10. Hiking Amongst Giants, ‘AST’ – Marjorie Pilli

Hiking Amongst Giants

Almost there! In this shot, you’re only about 30 minutes from arriving at the Annapurna Sanctuary – a spectacular alpine amphitheatre that has to be seen to be believed. That’s our guide DK in the picture, pointing out the surrounding peaks but clearly not holding the attention of the other guy in the photo. It’s OK – we’re working on his presentation skills… ?

Killing Time in a Backcountry Hut

It probably doesn’t come as a great surprise that around 30% of New Zealand is public land, and a lot of it covered by 18 incredible National Parks. What you may not know, though, is that there are over 950 back country huts throughout the country (accessible to the public). They come in all shapes and sizes with varying levels of ‘luxury’ and charm.

Some of these – the most charming of the lot – date back to the 1800s and are the foundation for our Kiwi love affair with the ‘back country hut’.

There’s so many memories tied up in these huts. So many friendships forged, heroes born and, probably, people conceived! There is a certain routine that happens – it’s a totally enjoyable routine that to a kiwi usually ‘just happens’ without thought – like foraging for dry wood. And in between this routine there’s time to kill and fun to be had.

So we came up with an idea. Let’s break down the routine and also give you a few ideas for how to create uncontrollable laughter and grins from ear to ear, in a backcountry hut (you could supplement that for tea house, tent, refugio and so on!)

Here’s the routine…

Tired legs turn the last bend along the trail, only to discover that it is in fact not the last bend and the trail continues to meander along the valley floor. This goes on for a while until the ‘real’ last bend rewards you with the welcoming site of shelter.

Angelus Hut
And there it is, our home for the night! Angelus Hut in the Nelson Lakes National Park.

Spirits lift and energy comes seemingly from nowhere. Enough even, to scrounge for dry firewood on the approach to the hut.

You ease your pack off tired shoulders, a pack heavier than it needs to be, with a bladder of red wine. You hang up your hiking poles and examine your toes out of your boots. 

Boots at a Backcountry Hut
Boots drying after a day’s hiking

Damp boots and socks now lay resting next to the sizzling wood fire. No one cares about the odor. It’s worth it.

Food is a priority. Everyone chips in – or maybe it’s someone’s turn and you’re lucky enough to put your legs up. At any rate, snacks arrive quick smart.

Backcountry Hut Food
Hut food is the best!

Dinner happens. It’s epic. You look around the room in the aftermath to flushed faces, enjoying the warmth from their hearty meal, their home-made mulled wine and the glow from the fire – your new best friend.

Backcountry Hut Glow
Backcountry Hut Glow

You lie snug in your sleeping bag listening to the old guard wax lyrical with hero stories. In this particular story the old guard was a NYC fireman sharing riveting, ‘real’ stories, better than any Hollywood movie. Rain tipper-tapers on the roof lulling you away to the best sleep you’ve had in ages. 

OK, so all that happens. That stuff needs to happen. That’s basic survival stuff really. Shelter, food, rest. But what about the other stuff. The fun that happens spontaneously. Well, there’s no harm in having a few tricks up your sleeve. Here’s our favourites:

Spoons

This really is a classic, and we’d like to think it’s an Active speciality. And the best part is, you’re guaranteed to have spoons with you (if you don’t, something has gone terribly wrong!). The game is simple really – place a number of spoons on a table (1 less than the amount of people playing) and make sure they’re evenly spaced so everyone sitting around the table can reach one. Grab a full pack of shuffled cards and deal 4 cards to each player. Nominate someone to draw a card off the top of the face down deck so they have 5 cards in their hand – they need to discard one and they’re trying to get 4 of a kind. They’ll discard a card and then pick another – the quicker they do this, the faster-paced the game and the more exciting it becomes. The first person to get 4 of a kind grabs a spoon and then everyone has to grab one. The person who misses out on a spoon is OUT. If you go for a spoon before you’ve got 4 of a kind you’re out. Faking is allowed though, most definitely, as long as you don’t touch the spoon! Here’s a short video of a recent spoons game on an Active trip, in this case not a backcountry hut, but you get the idea!

Star gazing

So you’re going to need a nice, clear night for this. If you’re really lucky you might be on our ‘Winter Rimu‘ trip, relaxing in the natural hot springs at Welcome Flat, on the Copland Track. It’s a dreamy experience to lay under the stars and listen to the natural sounds of the forest, whilst you rest your tired legs. It’s also a pretty special way to bond together as a group.

Star Gazing
Star Gazing from a NZ backcountry hut

Uno

More colourful than your average card game, essentially it’s all about getting rid of  your cards. Each suit has a colour (red, yellow, blue or green) and a number. Like a normal game of cards, you’ll follow the circle around and place a card from the 7 in your hand, onto the pile (so long as it’s the same number OR colour as the previously laid card).  The tactics begin when you change the colour to suit yourself (by laying the same number in a different colour) or by throwing down a ‘wild card’…  Sprinkled through the pack are ‘specialty cards’ which could either mean your neighbour has to pick up another 2, 4 or even 8 new cards to add to their hand, skip their go or switch the direction of play – which may or may not make you some new friends and enemies! Once you’re down to a single card in your hand, you have to shout ‘UNO!’ and the first person to lay down their final card wins. Pick up the pace, add a few more rules to the game and you’ve got yourself an evening of fun as well as a great way to make some new hut-friends (unless you screw them over…!).

Meet the wildlife

Many of our backcountry huts are situated in beautiful alpine environments, so when you visit one of these huts you’ll be sharing your home with the Kea, an endemic South Island parrot. The kea is thought to have developed its own special characteristics during the last great ice age, by using its powers of curiosity in its search for food in a harsh landscape. It’s a highlight for many, to sit and watch as inquisitive Kea fly around the hut. Just make sure your belongings are inside and please don’t feed them!

Kea
Endemic NZ Alpine Parrot – the Kea

Build a dam

Assuming you have some energy left. There’s nothing more satisfying than diverting a stream’s river flow. Even if it’s only for half an hour. Unleash the engineer within and get to work! A dam, with 100% no end goal, is a beautiful thing.

Bananagrams

It’s the “anagram game that will drive you bananas!” If you’re OK about calling out ‘Peel’, ‘Split’ and ‘Bunch’ in a public hut, and judged accordingly, this game is for you.

Look for glow worms

You’ll need a local guide for this. Coerce them into an evening tour and go to find some glow worms. It’s like star gazing but you don’t need to crane your neck!

NZ Glow worms
NZ Glow worms. Image courtesy of nz-trip.com

Whittle a walking stick

So you’ve built a dam and you’ve still got some energy. It must be the middle of summer and the days are long, allowing for extra MacGyver time. You’ll need a good bush knife for this and remember to whittle away from you, not towards your body! Don’t cut down our native tress either, please find a tree that’s already fallen down naturally. A Lancewood would do the trick. Oh, and be careful about trying to take your new walking stick through customs on your homeward journey…

Bush rummy

You’ll need at least two packs of cards for this game and any number of players. It would take a whole post to explain the rules of bush rummy, so you’re going to need a resident expert within your group. Essentially though, it’s based off gin rummy, but once you go past the first round you can place cards down at any time – you don’t have to wait your turn. So like many of the games listed here, it can get pretty crazy!

Country-themed sing along

One of the brilliant surprise elements of a backcountry hut experience is the mix of people you’ll be sharing your evening with. It’s like the fun part of flatting, without the hassle of having to do it day in/day out. You’ll always find some banter, whether it be around sport, politics or pop culture. And if you’ve got a merry crowd you might just get into a good old fashioned sing-along – so bring along a ukulele if you have one (and can carry it)!

Tantrix

We had to include this game – it’s from New Zealand! Tantrix is “the world’s most twisted puzzle game!” So what is it exactly? It’s a hexagonal tile-based abstract game. Huh? There are 56 tiles in a set, each containing 3 lines going from one edge of the tile to the other. The aim is to use the tiles to create the longest line or loop. It’s probably best if you invite Miriam along on your next backcountry hut adventure – she’s our resident Tantrix expert.

Tantrix Backcountry Hut games
Tantrix – we thought you’d need a photo to understand it!

Cards against humanity

If we need to explain this game, you’ve been hiding under a rock.

Success in the Himalayas

Active Himalayas was proud and excited to see the season’s first ‘Mustang’ trip head out on August 24. The trek could only be described as challenging, rewarding and inspiring. We caught up with trip leader Dan Thomas, and he gave us a run-down of how everything went!

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“The trail itself was fine, there were no visible earthquake related issues at all. The only difference was the lack of people out on the trail… it felt like we were the only ones out there at times – which was great! Kathmandu and the surrounding villages were also fine. As we expected, the Nepali people got stuck in over the summer months and cleaned the city up at light speed! Their hard work was especially apparent in the Thamel tourist area, where you’d hardly know there was an earthquake at all. Local store owners were ready for business, but the biggest difference here was again, the lack of crowds. In saying that, we did notice the town got busier when we returned from hiking the Mustang trek, so hopefully things are picking up again.

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Having spent some time around the Kathmandu region myself, I did see the difference… but I felt the whole area was really clean. Noticeably cleaner than any of my previous trips.
Thamel also seemed really quiet. It felt like the locals and store owners were ready for tourists to return, but still it felt a lot quieter than the Kathmandu I have experienced in the past. In saying that, after the trek it did seem like there were a quite a few more tourists in town, so hopefully things are picking up again.

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As for the rest of Kathmandu, some of the main tourist sites and temples had visible earthquake damage, but repairs to most of them were already well under way and we felt really safe the whole time.

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As far as I can say, Nepal is open for business and eagerly awaiting more visitors in the coming trekking season.”
So with our next trip heading into Annapurna Sanctuary on November 23, we can’t wait to see what’s in store! Be sure to check out our hashtag #HikeNepalAgain on Instagram and Facebook to stay up to date with the latest updates from Nepal!