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‘15 minutes to save the world’: a terrifying VR journey into the nuclear bunker | Virtual reality

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It became clear that things had gone terribly awry on this particular day when I saw that the most moderate option on the desk in front of me involved killing at least five million people.

I could kill up to 45 million if I chose the more comprehensive of the alternatives laid out on three pieces of paper, but it was hard to focus on the details because there were people shouting at me through my earpiece and from the screens in front of me.

I was experiencing what a US president would have to do in the event of a nuclear crisis: make a decision that would end many millions of lives – and quite possibly life on the planet – with incomplete information and in less than 15 minutes.

In the real world, I was in a meeting room in a Washington hotel, but with virtual reality goggles strapped on. I was sitting behind the president’s desk in the Oval Office. The television news was on and there was a report about Russian troop movements, but the volume was muted and someone was telling me the national security adviser was running late for our meeting.

I tried to shift my focus back to the news but a few seconds later a siren went off and a bald man in a uniform and dark glasses appeared from the door to my left.

“Mr President, we have a national emergency,” a woman’s voice said. “Please follow the military officer right away.”

The bald officer ushered me into a wood-paneled lift which had been concealed behind a wall, and we began our descent.

The VR simulation has been developed by a team from Princeton, American and Hamburg universities, based on extensive research, including interviews with former officials, into what would happen if the US was – or believed itself to be – under nuclear attack. They have called their project the Nuclear Biscuit, after the small card bearing the president’s launch authorization codes.

Over the past few days, it has been tried out in Washington by nuclear weapons experts and former officials (the researchers would not say whether any serving decision-makers had a go).

“You walk into that simulation and come out a changed person,” Richard Burt, who was the US chief negotiator in arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union, said after his turn.

Having gone through the full, terrifying, 15 minutes, I can see what he means. I emerged from the lift with my military aide into the underground situation room. Unlike the famous scene in Dr Strangelove, I was not surrounded by advisers. In the real world, it is unlikely that they would be instantly on hand when the alarm sounds.

On this occasion my national security adviser was still stuck in traffic, and the military aide is trained to say nothing. His job is to hold on to the briefcase, the “nuclear football”, containing the launch plans and biscuit. In the US system, the president has sole command authority. He or she can make the decision without asking for any advice.

As soon as I took a seat, a voice in my headset started to tell me the situation. Early warning sensors had detected the launch of 299 missiles in Russia which were thought, with high confidence, to be heading for the US mainland and most likely, the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos in the north-west. An estimated 2 million Americans would be killed. While this was being explained, another voice – this time a secret service officer – was telling me helicopters were on the way to evacuate me.

I struggled to understand all the details because the siren was still going on. It took me a few minutes to remember I was the commander-in-chief and could order it to be turned off. It was silenced immediately but I could not be sure I had not missed a vital nuance.

A general from strategic command appeared on one of the screens in front of me and told me I did not have much time to make a decision and to keep an eye on the digital clock on the conference table. It said I had 12 minutes, 44 seconds left.

“If you don’t make a decision before the clock hits zero, we will lose our entire ICBM force,” the general said, in a voice that implied I had already let the nation down.

The silent military aide opened the football and put my three options in front of me. The first was a “limited counterforce” strike, aimed at Russian ICBM silos and major submarine and bomber bases. That was the version that would kill five to 15 million Russians. Option 2 was a “full-scale counterforce” with a 10-25 million casualty estimate. Option 3 also targeted “war sustaining industries”, the Russian leadership and would kill 30-45 million.

The counterattacking options laid bare.
The counterattacking options laid bare. Photograph: Courtesy The Nuclear Biscuit Project

In 1979, the world came within minutes of nuclear war because someone had left a training tape simulating a Russian attack in the early warning system monitors. In September 1983, Russian computers erroneously showed incoming US missiles. Armageddon was only averted because the duty officer, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, went against protocols and decided not to act on the alert because his gut told him it was a glitch.

In the decades since, the technology has been updated but it is theoretically possible early warning systems could be hacked just like other supposedly super-secure networks have in the past.

I asked my aides if a cyber attack was possible and was told it was impossible to know for sure. My national security adviser (who had by then overcome his problems with traffic) recalled there had been something in the daily brief about the early warning network repelling a cyber attack.

I decided to scrap all three options and ordered an attack on Russia’s remaining arsenal only after the first incoming missiles had landed and it was confirmed to be a real attack. In case I was dead by then, I was advised to delegate launch authority to the vice president.

What happens next was deliberately left unclear. The simulation ends with the military aide displaying the codes necessary to order the launch. The point of the exercise is to underline the mind-numbing impossibility of the choices facing the leader of a nuclear weapons state.

The nuclear launch codes are displayed.
The nuclear launch codes are displayed. Photograph: Courtesy The Nuclear Biscuit Project

Moritz Kütt, senior researcher at the University of Hamburg’s Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, said the great majority of the participants in the experiment so far had selected one of the three options on the table.

“Most people picked an escalatory option and only very few decided not to respond,” Kütt said.

“People felt they were making decisions under uncertainty,” Sharon Weiner, associate professor at the School of International Service at American University, said. “They wished they knew more or thought that something wasn’t clear, but there was pressure to make a decision anyway.

“I think some people pick an option just because they want to be over,” she added.

The pressure to take one of the options presented by the Pentagon felt almost overwhelming. At one point an aide asked how I would be able to face my country if I failed to respond. The simulation raises the question of who chooses those options in the first place. In the 15 minutes available, it would be impossible to put all feasible alternatives in front of a president, so whoever whittles them down holds a huge amount of power. All we know is that it is someone from the US military. Diplomats, politicians or ethicists are not part of the process.

In the event of a nuclear alert, it would be too late for any broader reflection – just a few minutes of trying to think clearly amid sirens, raised voices and a multitude of unknowns.

“The tendency to take mental shortcuts is greater in high stakes situations,” Weiner said. People take more risks in crises. “Some of the literature says it depends on whether you feel secure personally or in your career. If you feel you’re not doing well, you take unnecessary risks.”

In my case, I froze in the last few minutes of the countdown, unable to think of anything else to do. I should have tried calling Vladimir Putin perhaps, but it turns out the simulation would have told me he was not available.

Shockingly, the researchers found no evidence that any US president except Jimmy Carter, had taken part in realistic drills to practise potentially world-ending decisions. Other presidents occasionally participated in table-top exercises with aides to discuss options but more often sent surrogates in their place.

In January, the research team will take their experiment to Capitol Hill, with the aim of provoking some contemplation about the realities underlying US nuclear planning.

“Hopefully members of Congress will come to experience this and at least see the consequences of the choices they’ve made about nuclear weapons issues,” Weiner said. “They will see everybody in that virtual room is trying to do their job, but it’s an impossible job.”

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Best podcasts of the week: what does the bloodsucking saga Twilight tell us about society? | Podcasts

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Picks of the week

The Big Hit Show
“Twilight is stupid; if you like it, you’re also stupid.” Why is there so much vitriol towards female Twihards? (Spoiler: misogyny.) In the first run of a series unpicking pop culture’s biggest moments – from the Obamas’ media company – Alex Pappademas starts by dissecting the wildly popular tale of teenage vampire love – and what the reactions to it say about us. Even if you’re not a fan, he raises some great questions. Hollie Richardson

Fake Psychic
Journalist Vicky Baker captivated listeners with Fake Heiress and now she investigates the fascinating story of Lamar Keene, the go-to spiritualist of 1960s America. When he hung up his questionable crystal ball he decided to reveal the tricks of supposed psychics, and Baker asks if that too was a con while pondering the authenticity of the psychics who followed. Hannah Verdier

Deep Cover: Mob Land
Animal lover, lawyer and switcher of identities Bob Cooley is the subject of Jake Halpern’s new season of the reliably mysterious podcast. Cooley was a top Chicago mob lawyer in the 70s and 80s, but what was the price when he offered to switch to the FBI’s side? This dive into corruption quizzes the key figures around him. HV

Chutzpod
This lively, engaging podcast attempts to “apply a Jewish lens to life’s toughest questions”. Hosts Rabbi Shira Stutman and one-time West Wing actor Joshua Malina cover topics ranging from reality TV shows to the Jewish “New Year of the Trees”, via the recent hostage stand-off at a synagogue in the Dallas suburb of Colleyville. Alexi Duggins

Backstage Pass with Eric Vetro
Eric Vestro is a vocal coach who’s worked with the likes of John Legend, Shawn Mendes, Camila Cabello and Ariana Grande. Here, he entertainingly lifts the curtain on their craft, talking to them about their journey in a manner that feels genuinely intimate given their pre-existing relationships. Expect some enjoyably daft voice exercises too. AD

Royally Flush investigates the monarchy’s relationship with the British slave trade.
Royally Flush investigates the monarchy’s relationship with the British slave trade. Photograph: Chris Radburn/Reuters

Chosen by Danielle Stephens

It’s fair to say that in the last couple of years the British monarchy has been put under a microscope for the way they handle their own family members, whether that be an heir to the throne and his American wife, or a prince embroiled in a civil sex abuse case. In a two parter titled Royally Flush, however, the Broccoli Productions’ Human Resources podcast goes back in time to investigate the royal family’s role in the slave trade in Britain, questioning how influential they were in trying to prevent abolition.

This is clearly a pandemic production as audio quality can sometimes be shaky, but the content is an important listen. As the country gears up to celebrate the Queen’s platinum jubilee, writer and host, Moya Lothian-McLean takes us on an unexplored trip down memory lane, presenting fascinating insights into why – despite ample evidence that the monarchy was historically instrumental in propping up the slave trade in Britain – we haven’t heard so much as a sorry coming from Buckingham Palace, according to the program maker.

Talking points

  • Never underestimate the skill that goes into making a good podcast. Over a year since Meghan and Harry’s audio production company Archewell signed a podcast deal with Spotify, they’ve only managed to release a single podcast. Hence, presumably the job ads Spotify posted this week, looking for full-time staff to help Archewell.

  • Why not try: Smartless | Screenshot

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California’s net neutrality law dodges Big Telecom bullet • The Register

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The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday upheld a lower court’s refusal to block California’s net neutrality law (SB 822), affirming that state laws can regulate internet connectivity where federal law has gone silent.

The decision is a blow to the large internet service providers that challenged California’s regulations, which prohibit network practices that discriminate against lawful applications and online activities. SB 822, for example, forbids “zero-rating” programs that exempt favored services from customer data allotments, paid prioritization, and blocking or degrading service.

In 2017, under the leadership of then-chairman Ajit Pai, the US Federal Communications Commission tossed out America’s net neutrality rules, to the delight of the internet service providers that had to comply. Then in 2018, the FCC issued an order that redefined broadband internet services, treating them as “information services” under Title I of the Communications Act instead of more regulated “telecommunications services” under Title II of the Communications Act.

California lawmaker Scott Wiener (D) crafted SB 822 to implement the nixed 2015 Open Internet Order on a state level, in an effort to fill the vacuum left by the FCC’s abdication. SB 822, the “California Internet Consumer Protection and Net Neutrality Act of 2018,” was signed into law in September 2018 and promptly challenged.

In October 2018, a group of cable and telecom trade associations sued California to prevent SB 822 from being enforced. In February, 2021, Judge John Mendez of the United States District Court for Eastern California declined to grant the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction to block the law. 

So the trade groups took their case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has now rejected their arguments. While federal laws can preempt state laws, the FCC’s decision to reclassify broadband services has moved those services outside its authority and opened a gap that state regulators are now free to fill.

“We conclude the district court correctly denied the preliminary injunction,” the appellate ruling [PDF] says. “This is because only the invocation of federal regulatory authority can preempt state regulatory authority.

The FCC no longer has the authority to regulate in the same manner that it had when these services were classified as telecommunications services

“As the D.C. Circuit held in Mozilla, by classifying broadband internet services as information services, the FCC no longer has the authority to regulate in the same manner that it had when these services were classified as telecommunications services. The agency, therefore, cannot preempt state action, like SB 822, that protects net neutrality.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which supported California in an amicus brief, celebrated the decision in a statement emailed to The Register.

“EFF is pleased that the Ninth Circuit has refused to bar enforcement of California’s pioneering net neutrality rules, recognizing a very simple principle: the federal government can’t simultaneously refuse to protect net neutrality and prevent anyone else from filling the gap,” a spokesperson said.

“Californians can breathe a sigh of relief that their state will be able to do its part to ensure fair access to the internet for all, at a time when we most need it.”

There’s still the possibility that the plaintiffs – ACA Connects, CTIA, NCTA and USTelecom – could appeal to the US Supreme Court.

In an emailed statement, the organizations told us, “We’re disappointed and will review our options. Once again, a piecemeal approach to this issue is untenable and Congress should codify national rules for an open Internet once and for all.” ®

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RCSI scientists find potential treatment for secondary breast cancer

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An existing drug called PARP inhibitor can be used to exploit a vulnerability in the way breast cancer cells repair their DNA, preventing spread to the brain.

For a long time, there have been limited treatment options for patients with breast cancer that has spread to the brain, sometimes leaving them with just months to live. But scientists at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI) have found a potential treatment using existing drugs.

By tracking the development of tumours from diagnosis to their spread to the brain, a team of researchers at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences and the Beaumont RCSI Cancer Centre found a previously unknown vulnerability in the way the tumours repair their DNA.

An existing kind of drug known as a PARP inhibitor, often used to treat heritable cancers, can prevent cancer cells from repairing their DNA because of this vulnerability, culminating in the cells dying and the patient being rid of the cancer.

Prof Leonie Young, principal investigator of the RCSI study, said that breast cancer research focused on expanding treatment options for patients whose disease has spread to the brain is urgently needed to save the lives of those living with the disease.

“Our study represents an important development in getting one step closer to a potential treatment for patients with this devastating complication of breast cancer,” she said of the study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Deaths caused by breast cancer are often a result of treatment relapses which lead to tumours spreading to other parts of the body, a condition known as secondary or metastatic breast cancer. This kind of cancer is particularly aggressive and lethal when it spreads to the brain.

The study was funded by Breast Cancer Ireland with support from Breast Cancer Now and Science Foundation Ireland.

It was carried out as an international collaboration with the Mayo Clinic and the University of Pittsburgh in the US. Apart from Prof Young, the other RCSI researchers were Dr Nicola Cosgrove, Dr Damir Varešlija and Prof Arnold Hill.

“By uncovering these new vulnerabilities in DNA pathways in brain metastasis, our research opens up the possibility of novel treatment strategies for patients who previously had limited targeted therapy options”, said Dr Varešlija.

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