Monday, April 21, 2008

White Flash

A Merciful White Flash
Tyler Wigg Stevenson
March 31, 2008

Before I became a Christian, I had the worst lunch breaks in the world. They went like this:

Every day I would take my bowl of rice and beans into the noonday sun and sit on the tailgate of my '87 Ranger, which commanded a billion-dollar view. Armed with the painfully earnest idealism of a new college graduate, I had scored a job at a nonprofit organization located in a house-cum-office just off the southern foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. I'd sit there in the parking lot, humming Otis Redding, literally at the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away. As I ate, I'd take in the bridge, the Marin headlands, Alcatraz and the East Bay, and the stunning Mediterranean sweep of the San Francisco skyline.

And every day the scenery was swept clean, in my mind's horrified eye, by the merciless white flash of a nuclear airburst.

Dust and Ashes

I was then an irreligious religion major, raised in a secular home and employed straight out of college by Alan Cranston, a four-term warhorse of the U.S. Senate who dedicated his retirement to advancing the global abolition of nuclear weapons. The crash course in nuclear policy I received my first two weeks on the job was nothing short of traumatic. My imagination had become a bit zingy from eating only rice, beans, and lettuce, and sleeping every night under my desk. (It was the height of the dot-com boom; rentals, especially for impoverished, nonprofit employees like me, were impossible to find.)

As just one example of the things that kept me awake at night: We had in 1999, and inexplicably still have today, thousands of nuclear-tipped warheads on hair-trigger alert. This is a holdover from the Cold War, when policy wonks were afraid that a preemptive nuclear attack by the Reds would destroy our ability to strike back. So we, like the Soviets, developed launch-on-warning procedures to have thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles airborne in 15 minutes—i.e., before missiles from the other side would hit our silos. In the event of a suspected attack, we would fire back instantly, and in a half-hour, the urban centers of two continents would be burning ruins, with hundreds of millions dead.

There's not a lot of time for double-checking analysis in 15 minutes. On the multiple recorded occasions when American and Soviet early-warning radars confused a flock of arctic geese, a weather satellite, and the rising moon for a nuclear attack, it was only the sheer disbelief of each side's nuclear commanders that kept us all alive.

It's this sort of thing, along with the less apocalyptic but far more probable prospect of a terrorist bomb, that haunted me. It's this sort of thing that turns a spoonful of rice and beans to dust and ashes on the tongue.

Grim Details

Here's what was behind the white flash I saw each day from my perch on the dock of the bay:

A one-megaton nuclear explosion releases an unfathomable, unstoppable amount of energy. What happens in the time it takes you to read the next word—a millisecond— is that from that core explosion, a fireball as hot as the core of the sun envelops 19 square miles of one of the most densely populated cities in America. Instantly, more than 300,000 sons and daughters die—and maybe double that, given all the people who have commuted in to work.

In the next seconds, a blast wave roars outward from the explosion's center at the speed of sound, accompanied by radioactive heat that causes second-degree burns at a distance of 6 miles. Fifty percent of people within 2.5 to 4 miles of the explosion die then; 10 percent of those in the 4- to 6.5-mile ring. Given the circumstances, 10 percent somehow starts to sound pathetically, perversely hopeful, until you realize that's 10 percent of everyone in a ring covering more than 80 square miles, or the entire northern section of the San Francisco peninsula. The view from the heavens would look like the Devil's cigar had been stubbed out on the earth.

All in all, a minimum of 700,000 lucky souls die in the first moments, more than all the combatants killed on both sides of the American Civil War, the costliest in U.S. history. I say lucky, because nearly twice that number are desperately injured, but all the hospitals are destroyed—as are the ambulances, paramedics to drive them, and roads to drive them on. Hundreds of thousands more die from burns as firestorms spring up everywhere, and the firefighters are already dead. Many who survive being burned die of asphyxiation as all the oxygen is consumed. Radiation, a patient killer, will claim its share as well over the coming weeks and years: for decades, the death toll will be recorded in pencil, not ink. And the psychological and spiritual impact is unimaginable.
We will never be over this. Never.

(The entire article can be read here.)

Tyler Wigg Stevenson is director of the Biblical Security Covenant..

Friday, April 11, 2008

More Bob Dylan

I bought the DVD No Direction Home, and found it fascinating. I also bought the 2-disc Soundtrack CD ("The Bootleg Series Vol. 7":

Recounting their time together, Joan Baez said:
He came out and stayed with me in a beautiful house, in Carmel Valley. Bob liked to write there, and he would just stand, tapping away at that typewriter. He would always say, "What do you think of this?" And I wouldn't understand the thing at all, but I loved it. So I went, "Okay, I'm gonna figure this one out." So I read through it, and I gave back my interpretation of what I thought it was about. He said, "That's pretty f------ good." He would say, "See now, a bunch of years from now, all these people, all these a------- are gonna be writing about all the s--- I write. I don't know where the f--- it comes from. I don't know what the f--- it's about. (laughing) And they're gonna write what it's about."
Liam Clancy said this about seeing Bob Dylan at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival:
I was on top of this 12-foot station and I had a long lens. I was looking at Bob Dylan coming out on stage. He was Charlie Chaplin. He was Dylan Thomas. He talked like Woody Guthrie. He was constantly moving. In old Irish mythology they talk about the shape-changers. He changed voices. He changed images. It wasn't necessary for him to be a definitive person. He was a receiver. He was possessed. And he articulated what the rest of us wanted to say but couldn't say.
These two comments epitomize what I think the film tells and shows us about Bob Dylan - i.e., he was not only a force, but he was also driven by a force which even he didn't understand, and perhaps doesn't understand to this day, judging by what he says in the interview that cuts in and out during the film and holds the film together.

So, who/what is Bob Dylan? I'm not sure even he knows. The following, from a review of the movie I'm Not There, may contain the truth in the quote from Harry Weber:
Even with new information provided in the film, however, his personality remains not so much elusive as cantankerous, particularly in contrast with the expansiveness of his songs. That gap gives I'm Not There something of a hollow centre. The contradiction is neatly summed up in Robert Shelton's 1986 biography of Dylan, also called No Direction Home. Shelton quotes Harry Weber, who knew Dylan as a university freshman in Minnesota, saying: "Dylan is a genius, that's all. He is not more complex than most people; he is simpler."
Here is an interesting story about what is perhaps the most influential rock song of all time, Poetic Accident: Recording 'Like a Rolling Stone':
No matter how timeless "Like a Rolling Stone" might turn out to be, what happened over the two days of recording sessions makes it clear that had circumstances been even slightly different -- different people present, a different mood in the studio, different weather in the streets outside, a different headline in the morning paper -- the song might never have entered time at all, or interrupted it.

I also bought DYLAN at Best Buy (the digipak 3-CD set, not the too-expensive Deluxe mini-boxed edition with the same 3 CDs, plus a bigger booklet and some postcards):

And after listening to the above, as well as Modern Times (also bought - the music videos on the extra DVD disc are interesting - he sure has aged, and not too well, it appears),

I think I prefer the younger Dylan. His voice is kind of wretched these days - I suspect he continued to smoke (and maybe still does), because his age alone, IMO, can't account for how bad he now sounds. It's really a shame if smoking was the cause, because it's something that didn't need to happen, as I'm sure George Harrison would have told him. So I bought The Bootleg Series Vol. 4, 5, and 6 - i.e., live concerts: