Un-memory: nine years on

Facebook threw me up a memory from 9 years go, when we were all worried about Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s possible deployment of an EMP against us. (Well, I was really worried about that last. Everybody’s Christmas lights going out all over the country? I’m STILL worried bout that—why isnt anybody else?) And the movie “The Interview” was banned because it might be construed s making fun of the l’il heir to Il.
The point is, this was MY OWN memory, and it took me a few minutes to reconstruct what I was feeling then and make sense of my Facebook post.

Welp—I don’t even know what I wanna say about this.

T’was ever thus? That I’m no better than the a-historical millennials I despise? I mean, look, if the Norks or anybody else can wipe out our power grid: no heat, no light, no communications—how long do you think civil order will last?
What happened to ME, let alone anybody else, that this specific fear of an EMP just…receded to the …not even “back”, more like the archives, of my mind?
I mean, if the Norks could do it, anybody could, right? I don’t think I stopped worrying about this because I read that someone had invented a miraculous shield against it. Nah. I just forgot. Cuz I wanted to, and nobody was reminding me.

Ages ago somewhere I read, “Christmas is a feast of memory”. Oh God, so true! “Bring in your memories of Christmas past/Bring in your tears for all that you have lost” as Wendy Cope wrote.
But, grace à Facebook, I’m reminded that it’s also a feast of forgetting.
And blessedly so, I reckon.

All good wishes for happy memories (and merciful amnesia), dear polymaths!


The danger of an EMP is the grid as a whole, and it frustrates me that my understanding is that it would only cost about $2 Billion to secure the US grid from this. It’s possible this is being done quietly – there is a shortage of transformers right now, hopefully that’s why.

When I was at Intel over 20 years ago, one of the amusements was seeing patents getting awarded to the same guy each quarter for features that protect chips against static electrical discharge. So the good news is that many devices, computers, cars, etc. Won’t be permanently disabled after an EMP. The bad news is I can’t say the same about the grid as a whole.

I did visit Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory recently at a family day, and we saw a presentation by a team that is working on securing the grid. This seemed to mostly focus on cyberthreats, but they could be working on EMP protection as well.

You can find info on the project here.


9 years ago I was worried about excessive government debt rather than a North Korean EMP.

18 years ago I was also worried about excessive government debt.

And here we all still are today – no North Korean EMP (yet), and even more excessive government debt.

Maybe the message is that every disaster we can envisage will indeed strike us … some day. But since we can’t predict when that imminent threat will strike, we might as well smell the roses today while we still can. Have a very Happy Christmas!


As I have observed many times in the past, this is another glaring example of the failure of the formerly --United States to govern itself. The state’s first duty is to protect the citizens from precisely this kind of highly-lethal and foreseeable threat. And to add insult, the cost of doing so would be within a rounding error of the so-called budget (= giant, rolling pork barrel).


Wait, you know how to fix it?!?

1 Like

One of the things the U.S. federal government did right (hey, it was in 2008—before) was the preparation and publication of the “Critical National Infrastructures” [PDF] report by the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack. They not only read “studies” and listened to “experts”, but set up and ran their own experiments where automobiles, aircraft, and electrical and electronic equipment were subjected to high-energy pulses that simulated the effects of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) events in a variety of scenarios.

They found that while the consequences of such an event would not be as dire as some of the hyperventilating reports in popular media (for example, most cars would, if they stalled, simply restart, and airliners raining out of the sky was pure fantasy), the reality would still be severe. They also evaluated means of mitigating the severity of damage and found that a relatively small investment in hardening systems and planning for bringing them back up after an EMP disruption would have a large payoff in lives saved and economic losses averted should such an event happen.

Of course, essentially none of these steps have been taken because, as Glenn Reynolds (the Instapundit) puts it, they provide “insufficient opportunities for graft”.

Hardening of power grid and communication infrastructure is wise regardless of your view of the geopolitical situation because every now and then the Sun vomits out a solar flare that sends an electromagnetic bullet into space which, if it hits the Earth, will have effects comparable to an EMP caused by Norks with nukes. (Probably not as acute, but still able to turn the lights off on a hemispheric scale.) The last big one to hit the Earth was the Carrington event in 1859, but there have been many since which, by pure luck, missed the Earth. I wrote about one earlier this year on 2023-03-18 in “Large Coronal Mass Ejection on Far Side of the Sun”. Luck is not a strategy.

Still, we know how to avoid most of the consequences of either a deliberate EMP attack or a solar flare. Whether we have the foresight to make the modest investment required to do so is less certain.

You can’t be too careful. We may be overdue for the next Miyake event.