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back to article 30 years on: The day a computer glitch nearly caused World War III

Computer problems are an annoyance for us all, but thirty years ago a fault in the Soviet Union's ballistic missile early warning system very nearly caused nuclear war, if not for the actions of Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Air Defense Forces. 1983 was a very dangerous time for humanity. In the US, President …

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Don't fret

>> Nuclear winter would block out much of the world's sunlight, which coupled with the lack of machinery, fertilizers, and pesticides, (as well as radioactive topsoil) would have led to mass starvation.

We'll get there, we just chose the scenic route.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Don't fret

Your big-corp sycophantacy has been noted!

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Re: Don't fret

...If you want to go to an agrarian community living at subsistence level, you are free to do so.

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Re: Don't fret

Just make sure it's as close as possible to a primary target.

...or super far away and start building fortifications.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Don't fret

Quite a humble guy.

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Re: Don't fret

We'll get there, we just chose the scenic route.

And on one side we have Mother Hubbard but there is an equally extreme view on the other side as well. In the middle is where we find balance.

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Re: Don't fret

In the middle is where we find balance.

More like "where we get run over by both sides", unfortunately.

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Re: Don't fret

Please look up "Fallacy of the Golden Mean".

Simply aserting that the best position is in the middle of two extremes does not make it so.

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Re: Don't fret

I think an apocalypse is underrated. There are plenty of fun things to do during a doomsday event.

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Re: Don't fret

Simply aserting that the best position is in the middle of two extremes does not make it so.

But, given two wrong extremes, the best position to take would be somewhere between them.

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Pint

Fallacy

Wish I could upvote you twice...

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Re: Don't fret

"given two wrong extremes, the best position to take would be somewhere between them"

No, the best position would be 90 degrees away from both of them and as far away as you can possibly go.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Don't fret

"But, given two wrong extremes, the best position to take would be somewhere between them."

Actually that doesn't follow at all. Given two wrong extremes, it's likely the whole chain is wrong and best not to be a part of it instead. Between murder and suicide you have suicide bombers. Best just not to be involved in killing in the first place.

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He may down play his actions

The fact of the matter is, there are precious few people out there willing to disregard the idiocy the computer screen is telling them and make intelligent decisions on their own. Even worse, more and more people are willing to be lead blindly by the technology at their disposal even when that small part of the brain (common sense) is screaming at them not to do it.

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Re: He may down play his actions

As sat-nav shows.....

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Re: He may down play his actions

I think it's telling that this guy was following procedures he himself wrote, this suggests he had a very good conceptual understanding of the system he was operating, rather than just some grunt charged with staring at the computer screen until it told him what to do.

This may have been luck rather than good judgement on part of the Soviet command structure, but It needs to be recognized that putting people who know what they are doing in charge of things is generally a good idea. Your average sys-admin isn't going to be lording praise on himself for knowing that "lp0 on fire" is very seldom to be taken literally, this guy probably feels largely that same way, even if the stakes are exponentially higher (unless lp0 is doing the payroll, in which case all bets are off)

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Re: He may down play his actions

>It needs to be recognized that putting people who know what they are doing in charge of things is generally a good idea.

What? That's just crazy talk. Overpaid people who tell everyone how good they are without actually being any good at anything are so much better, don't you think?

Petrov is proof that logic is a good thing. He could have been wrong about a pre-emptive mini-strike, but a mini-strike made no strategic sense. He probably also had target estimates, and with random cloud reflections the estimates would have made no sense either. So the call was cool-headed and rational.

It's still good it was his finger on the console, not someone else's.

Interestingly for all you fans of near apocalypse, this wasn't the first time an ornery Russian saved the world.

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Unhappy

Re: He may down play his actions

>> Overpaid people who tell everyone how good they are without actually being any good at anything are so much better, don't you think?

Only applies to the people at the very top. The ordinary supervisor is just another (expendable) minion.

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Re: He may down play his actions

Well you know what they say about Common Sense....

....It ain't all that common!

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Re: Hobbes' ornery Russian

Nor was it the first time said ornery officer was in place to make decisions and contribute to minimizing damage as he had been the executive officer on K-19.

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Re: He may down play his actions

What's common sense good for these days? Having some only means you won't be rewarded for being a complete fucking idiot. We've successfully removed many of the means by which common sense could be bred into future generations. As a culture there is this belief that common sense shouldn't be needed if everyone did what they were supposed to. Thing is we can't back up now without people wailing that country/president/government is a heartless bastard: Think of the children!

If a nuclear attack happened today, I wonder how many people would sue...

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Re: Hobbes' ornery Russian

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasiliy_Arkhipov

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Thought Experiments

I think there is a key point in this. And that is the guy who wrote the operations manual was present when things got real. He had obviously put a lot of thought into what to do, what not to do, and why he might have to do it. He really knew his stuff.

Had it been someone not so familiar with the entire system and/or who had not thought about the entire scenario so much it might have been much different. Just handing those decision making powers to 'the next guy in line for promotion' might not always be a great idea.

Serious things like planet devastating weapons systems require more thought about their use case than actual planning for their use. Someone only trained to memorize and follow the manual likely wouldn't have the same, in-depth, thought process and would just take Step #31 and make the call, like the manual says...

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Re: Thought Experiments

Why do people say 'use case' when they mean 'use'?

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Re: Thought Experiments

Habit case.

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Re: Thought Experiments

Subtly different meaning.

"Thinking about their use" would mean how they are to be used, which direction they should be fired, etc.

"Thinking about their use case" means thinking about the events and decisions which would lead to them being used - the case of their usage.

It's the difference between thinking about driving my car (the first one), and thinking about getting into my car (the second one). In the event of nuclear war, only the second one really matters. Once the case had been made for the weapons' use, all would have been guaranteed to break lose on humanity.

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Re: Thought Experiments

"Why do people say 'use case' when they mean 'use'?"

You do know what a "use case " is ?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Thought Experiments

@Squidgell

It's probably because "use" and "use case" mean different things.

So I imagine people use them in a much a similar way I use the word "cat" to refer to a cat and "dog" when referring to a dog. I.e when we know the right word for something we use it.

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Re: Thought Experiments

You have demonstrated the use case for free online dictionaries and encyclopedias. It might benefit you to use one.

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Re: Thought Experiments

http://www.ebay.com/itm/NUNS-VEIL-SET-nuns-veil-nuns-veils-nuns-habits-nuns-habit-nuns-veil-nuns-/261295549809

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Joke

And we all thought

Microsoft's blue screen of death was bad.

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Boffin

Re: And we all thought

Not that funny since their computer systems might have been running MS DOS ... the soviets stole it, changed a few strings (Microsoft -> Was Systems, Inc), and used it extensively ...

Not 100% sure MicroDos was the one, though, coz my Russian is too bad.

Not for the faint of heart:

https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/MicroDOS

German variant with nice pics:

http://www.robotrontechnik.de/index.htm?/html/computer/k8915.htm

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Sir

"I was in the right place at the right moment."

That's what makes you 'that' guy.

I think the world owes this guy and his poorly wife a few quid to live out the rest of his life in comfort.

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Re: Sir

Sir Runcible Spoon, when you really think about it, the world really owes this guy, well, the world.

> I think the world owes this guy and his poorly wife a few quid to live out the rest of his life in comfort.

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Re: Sir

As a matter of fact, he was given some. Not by USA, not by Russia either. By the EU. It is in some of the russian language articles.

USA and Russia have given him some trinkets. USA a statue, Russia - a few medals (I cannot recognise any of them as one of the higher level distinctions that change your military or civilian pension).

I remember those days - it was some seriously trigger happy time. It was reeking of war. In fact, we should probably be thankful that Andropov failed the war on corruption and mafia at the same time. His atempt to use his backing from the KGB apparatchicks misfired pretty badly and failed. Hint - a lot of people who have lived in Moscow during that period have some doubts in his death certificate. Rather unsurprising considering that the "anti-fraud" (quotes intended) squad from the milicia (police) and their counterparts from kgb were having shootouts on the tube and everyone pretended that nothing has happened.

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Anonymous Coward

"Foreigners tend to exaggerate my heroism," he said

This is the single most interesting sentence in the whole article. I read this as saying that he thinks most people in the Soviet Union would have done the same - ie. Apart from their leaders, they didn't really think we'd launch a first strike. Funnily enough, apart from our leaders at the time, I don't recall too many people who honestly thought the Soviets would launch a first strike on us either.

Makes you wonder about the people we pick to lead ...

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Anonymous Coward

Not wanting to paint the USSR in a good light - I was building the equivalent systems for our side at the time.

The Russians had fought a terrible total-war fighting for their lives, saw most of their country destroyed and only won by heroic sacrifice. The Americans had a war barely noticed by the civilian population, were never in danger and ended it with an atomic weapon.

Soviet weapons systems from the AK47 to the top line fighter were all designed as if it would be the last one standing against a foreign invasion - you can see it in every detail of their kit. American systems all appear to be built on the assumption that they will hit a target 10,000mi away and be home for steak and a beer.

The idea that the Russians would deliberately start WWIII first never worried us as much as an American leader who God had personally chosen to wipe out the commie menace.

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I'll bet you worked crypto, because I read your entire post twice and still have no clue what the hell you're talking about.

> I was building the equivalent systems for our side at the time.

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JLV
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Pint

I know, I know...

>The Americans had a war barely noticed by the civilian population, were never in danger and ended it with an atomic weapon.

Yanks are all a*holes in Reg land. Never do wells. ;-)

Mayhap a little thinkin o gulags, Ukraine 30s starvation & the like is in order. Not all suffering was inflicted by outsiders. That Solziehnytsin dude (I had an easier time reading his books than spelling his name).

The US coulda sat out the Western front after Pearl Harbor. Heck, Japan did.

Big reason Russia bled so much is Dieppe showed the West exactly how much could go wrong & how little be achieved invading Western Europe. 43 was too early to Normandy. & maybe too much effort wasted bombing German cities too, which the UK partook in as well.

With all apologies to the very real sacrifices by Russians.

Petrov, we owe him, big. Had it been real, he woulda been shot & doomed his countrymen. A real man to do that.

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Re: I know, I know...

"Petrov, we owe him, big. Had it been real, he woulda been shot & doomed his countrymen. A real man to do that."

Or possibly killed by the very missles he was employed to track.

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The bit that always horrified me when reading about the Cold War was how the Cuban Missile Crisis almost ended civilisation, and yet in the later years the West pushed to get as many missiles in Europe as possible without thinking this could escalate.

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The Cuban Missle Crisis only escalated so high because there was no way for the heads of state to directly communicate with each other. The Soviets announced their intentions to back down through their newspaper because they knew it was monitored by the US and UK and was the only way to get their message out without it being corrupted by 17 steps of diplomacy on the way to the President.

After it was over the 'red phone' (not really red or a phone) system was established allowing the Soviet and US heads of state to communicate in case things ever got that bad in the future. Just the existence of the 'red phone' is credited with scaling back future tensions.

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Re: Cuban Missile Crisis

No, what's amazing is that it was simple tit for tat, the US shipping missiles to Turkey insigated the USSR to ship missiles to Cuba to even the field again yet the USSR response was presented as the aggressive "they're forcing our hand, we have no choice other than WWIII" move in the media.

Regarding the story, this isn't the only time it's happened, there are other documented cases, we don't know exactly how many times a single human has saved the world by defying procedure, but I suspect it's a fucking scary number of times. It's inevitable when a load of nations have built extensive systems designed to completly destroy all life on the planet.

Will we grew up and turn them off before there's an accident? I hope so.

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Re: Cuban Missile Crisis

The big difference with the Cuban Missile Crisis was that an actual genocidal evangelical nutter was being put close to the controls, as opposed to the usual hard-headed realists. Che Guevara wrote that he believed Cuba should have launched the missiles into the USA and how angry he was with Castro for not doing so -- had he been in charge, he'd have launched them immediately, no question. And Guevara didn't even want to launch them for any well-thought-out strategic reason or in response to American aggression or anything: he was just that much of a true-believing anti-American Communist that he thought it was his duty to bring about the war that Communism would inevitably win, no matter how devastating. I would imagine that the American leadership, who had a good idea of what Guevara was like, were a bit more worried about Cuba than the Russian leadership, who had a good idea what Gursel was like, were about Turkey.

As far as I'm aware, the Cuban Missile Crisis is the only time nuclear weapons came that close to the control of a man like Guevara. For the most part, the Cold War was fought by people who did actually care whether they themsleves died, which is why MAD, frightening thought it was for the populace, worked. It also appears to have worked between Pakistan and India. It'll probably work on North Korea, though no doubt they'll grandstand like crazy. I am not confident it'll work on Iran.

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Re: I know, I know...

Nobody is saying the USSR were nice, or even that Stalin was noticeably better than Hitler.

But that in the 40s and 50s the USA had a very different idea about the desirability, winnability, and impact of a WWIII than the Russians - is pretty well accepted in military history.

The good side of this was that the USSR was less keen on hosting Stalingrad-2 than the USA was on performing Hiroshima-the sequel. The bad side was that it led to a Soviet high command so paranoid that many believed WWII had been a setup between UK/USA/Nazi against them and the UK vs Germany was a mere side show for forms sake.

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JLV
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Re: Cuban Missile Crisis

The bit that never fails to annoy me is how Kennedy is presented as a great president. He was worse than Bush, IMHO. Though smarter, but that's not a high bar.

A Democrat, he campaigned Nixon in 1960 on a "missile gap" in which had the USSR being significantly ahead of the US. Which he knew wasn't true because he was on the Foreign Relations Committee. Certainly, in 1962, he knew he could push USSR to the brink in Cuba, after he had done put his missiles in Turkey.

Only reason he could push them to the brink is there WAS a missile gap, just the other way around, with the USA being far ahead.

Cuban Missile Crisis - Kennedy.

Bay of Pigs, that's Kennedy.

Then, Vietnam's road to war is basically started by Kennedy, with advisors coming in, though combat units were only in from 1965.

Great guy? Camelot? Hah!

I am not saying anything good about the USSR - they were EVIL. Nor am I necessarily very anti-US. But Kennedy was the most incendiary president during the Cold War and he almost triggered nuclear war because of Cubans removing their tinpot US-supported dictator. We should remember him for that too, not just his good looks and tolerance of the Civil Rights movement.

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Re: Cuban Missile Crisis

That happens all the time when people die. It is more prevalent when they die tragically. People keep elevating that person toward deification. There is a social taboo on speaking ill of the dead, so few refute the praise. It usually takes a long time before people view the situation objectively and even then they are called revisionists.

There's a long list of kings, queens, presidents and musicians who were actually pretty bad at their jobs but whose reputation is greatly improved in culture and in history books. I think some of them actually plan for that to happen. Matter of fact, I know some did: Ronald Reagan and Bush MkII both cratered the US and both also talked of how history would gloss over their mistakes. Takes a real cocksucker to be more concerned with future history books than with the actual living people they are supposed to lead.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Cuban Missile Crisis

Planning for the Bay of Pigs started under Eisenhower. The CIA did not inform Kennedy that they (the CIA) had information indicating the USSR knew the invasion was coming.

American advisors arrived in then French Indochina in 1950 10 years before Kennedy was elected POTUS.

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"The Americans had a war barely noticed by the civilian population,"

Hardly the case. The whole country was mobilized and we were still running out of [trained] soldiers when the Germans launched their Ardennes counteroffensive.

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