I'll try to keep this from becoming a running travelogue but there are some things I get no other opportunity to talk about. By the end of this post you will understand why.

This large nation is not populated very evenly. The vast majority of us live in a (relative) handful of spots and huge swaths of the rest of the country are lightly populated if at all. Of the places I've had the opportunity to see up close, North Dakota and Montana take the cake for pure desolation. You can, and of necessity will, drive for hours in this part of the country without seeing another car or a human settlement of more than 1000 people. Rugby, North Dakota bills itself as the "Geographic Center of North America" which is particularly fitting, as northern North Dakota is as close as one can get to being in the actual middle of nowhere.

I chose my route to Seward's Folly with the intent of getting to see some things I've always wanted to see, namely one of my personal favorite pieces of Cold War arcana / bizarre architecture. To do so entailed driving for hours to Nekoma, ND, which as best I could tell is populated solely by aggressive mosquitoes.

Short version: As soon as the great powers of the Cold War developed missiles capable of lobbing nuclear weapons at one another from 20,000 miles away (Intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBM) the military-technological version of the mythical city of gold has been the creation of a missile to shoot down other missiles. Like a king cobra that only feeds on other snakes, anti-ballistic missiles (ABM) were among the centerpieces of Reagan's "Star Wars" fairy tales in the 1980s. But the idea is as old as offensive missiles, which is to say dating to the 1940s or earlier.

Briefly, ABMs do not work. Just take my word for it on this point. They don't work and they will never work despite the literal trillions that have been poured into developing them over the past half-century. George W. Bush resurrected the idea ("National Missile Defense") in 2004, mostly because he is a very stupid person. There is no advance or development in ABMs that cannot be negated by cheap countermeasures: plastic dummy warheads, chaff, or sheer volume. Do not debate me on this point because you are wrong.

Where were we. Ah, yes. The 1970s. In that lamentable decade the Pentagon devoted more than six billion dollars to the creation of a project called Safeguard, an ABM system intended to shoot down incoming Soviet nuclear weapons. Using the Distant Early Warning system in Arctic Canada (google "DEW Line" if you want an interesting read) to alert us to a Cossack sneak attack, Safeguard was supposed to identify, track, and shoot down incoming threats. Since the route of attack for Soviet missiles (or bombers) crossed the North Pole and Canada, the far northern central US was considered the best location for Safeguard. That's how I ended up in Nekoma, ND.

Safeguard was, even by military pork project standards, grotesquely pointless. It did not work particularly well, and even if it worked perfectly it had a paltry number of defensive missiles relative to the hundreds upon hundreds of ICBMs an enraged USSR could have fired at us. It was online for less than 2 years and then quietly mothballed.
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What remains in rural North Dakota is a truly surreal modern archaeological site.


That giant cyclopean concrete pyramid is a multidirectional phased array radar intended to identify incoming missiles then precisely target and fire an American missile to knock it down. The missile silos in the ground do not appear in the photograph because the area is barbed-wired off and there's insufficient elevation anywhere nearby to get a good overhead view. I also found that the closest town inhabited by humans – Langdon, ND – has a deactivated missile from the Safeguard system in its public park. How cheerful.


Fortunately we've learned quite a bit from all of these debacles – strategic, technological, economic, etc – over the years and the U.S. has finally stopped throwing money into the black hole of a technology that is unlikely to work against a threat that is unlikely to materialize.

Oh. Wait. Never mind. I guess we'll keep building future relics. Hopefully more conveniently located ones.


As long as we're on the subject, here is the iconic photo taken by Hubert van Es showing civilians clamoring to be taken aboard an American helicopter on the roof of the U.S. Embassy:

Except that isn't the U.S. Embassy. The rooftop evacuation actually took place on a building known then as the Pittman Apartments, where many workers from the various embassies lived.
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It stands at 22 Ly Tu Trong Street today, just blocks from the new U.S. Consulate (which is not the same structure as the War-era U.S. Embassy).


1. I have to keep it short today, as I spent the evening at a big-screen viewing of Starship Troopers. Holy balls, I forgot how much I love Starship Troopers. To this day I have trouble wrapping my head around the fact that there are people in the world who do not understand that this film (and director Paul Verhoeven's other big-budget splatterfest, Robocop, for that matter) is satire. Seriously, there are people who say things like "My god, it's so violent!" or "What's wrong with you? That movie is, like, fascist!" Come on. It might not be "A Modest Proposal" but I don't think it's that hard to figure out.

2. Speaking of fascists, here's your Random Fact of No Particular Relevance: Unity Mitford, the British aristocrat and fascist who became part of Hitler's inner circle before and throughout the Second World War – by the way, her sister Diana was married to British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley; nice people, those Mitfords – was born in Swastika, Ontario.

I could not make this shit up if I tried. And believe me, I do.


Its frequent appearances on my Facebook feed over the past week has reminded me of an unavoidable fact about Wisconsin, a state I ordinarily love: the Wisconsin flag is an abomination.

This shitshow violates every one of the basic principles of vexillology, not to mention taste and common sense. Yes, there are principles of vexillology (the design and academic study of flags) thanks to the wonderful dorks at the North American Vexillogical Association. It offers a helpful publication entitled Good Flag, Bad Flag that I stumbled upon many years ago while attempting to design a logo for a student organization. Note how many of these principles Wisconsin disregarded:

1. Keep it simple
2. Use meaningful symbolism
3. Use 2 or 3 colors
4. No lettering or seals
5. Be distinctive

This is the sort of thing one never contemplates but when it is explained it makes perfect sense. Then again, one doesn't necessarily need a theoretical explanation to pick a crappy flag out of a lineup as this study of city flags proves. See if you can find the terrible one!

Come on, Milwaukee. If you're going for camp, why not Alice Cooper saying "It's Algonquin for…'the good land'." Washington D.C. and Chicago keep things simple and accordingly have flags that kick considerably more ass. Aside from my native fondness for Chicago's design, I'd say that these are my two favorite flags:

The first one is New Mexico, of course. How about you? Feel free to share some particularly excellent or appalling designs you've encountered over the years. I'll award a cash prize to the first person who can find a flag uglier than Louisiana's. Nice pelican, losers.


Today is the 49th anniversary of a classic height-of-the-Cold-War moment: the exchange of Rudolf Abel for captured U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers over the Glienicker Bridge in Potsdam. Here is the contemporaneous story from Time Magazine. A little-known fact about this little-remembered incident is that Powers was accompanied by American graduate student Frederic Pryor, who had been detained by the USSR as a potential spy. In reality, Pryor simply stumbled into a spy trap in East Berlin and was not in fact an agent. He went on to teach Economics at Swarthmore, Michigan, and other elite universities for decades. He is still alive and semi-retired.

I want so badly to go next year and re-enact this for the 50th anniversary. If you don't know who Rudolf Abel is, fix that. If you are ignorant of Gary Powers and the U-2 incident, fix that too.

Quick question – why did the CIA give Powers a poisoned suicide pin (which he failed to use as he had been ordered to do) while also giving him a parachute?
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It appears that giving him neither would have produced more desired results than giving him both.
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What has two thumbs and is heading to the airport for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals? This guy.

Goal horns are common in North American hockey stadiums.** The tradition arises from the fact that early 20th Century refrigeration technology required phenomenal amounts of water to maintain an ice surface, so arenas were located on lakes or rivers. With each home team goal, ships passing or docked nearby would blow their foghorns. Fans got accustomed to it so when the technology improved and stadiums moved inland, they brought the horns with them.

Now that is a Random Fact of No Particular Relevancetm.

**(Note: some inferior teams made up of little bitches, such as the Philadelphia Flyers, substitute a train horn or worse. For shame.)


From a 1970s Peace Corps manual (via outstanding travel writer Robert Young Pelton), "How to survive an anaconda attack."

1. Do not run. The snake is faster than you are.
2. Lie flat on the ground, put your arms tight against your sides and your legs tight against each other.
3. Tuck your chin in.
4. The snake will being to nudge and climb over your body.
5. Do not panic.
6. The snake will begin to swallow your feet first.
7. You must lie perfectly still. This will take a long time.
8. When the snake has reached your knees, reach down, take your knife, slide it into the side of the snake's mouth between the edge of its mouth and your leg. Quickly rip upward, severing the snake's head.
9. Be sure you have your knife.
10. Be sure your knife is sharp.

You're welcome. For further information please consult the documentary Anaconda starring Ice Cube and Tebagging legend Jon Voight.


(Random Facts of No Particular Relevance are exactly what the name implies. If the reader relies upon one of these facts to win money on a game show I am entitled to 10% off the top. That's pre-tax. On the other hand, you may use these to achieve mastery of bar trivia free of charge.)

"Canola", as in canola oil, is an acronym for "Canadian oil, low acid." The plant from which the oil is produced is called rapeseed. For some strange reason they must have doubted that consumers would want to buy or eat something called "rapeseed."

You're welcome.

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