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Goin' Nuculer

(Author's disclaimer: I am in no way an expert on any of the matters I'm about to discuss. I've never served in the military, never held any sort of government office, have minimal training and/or experience in matters political, and only a smattering of formal education about politics and government. I'm just one guy who reads a hell of a lot, who remembers a lot of what I read, who listens to those who know, and has way, way too much time to think about things.)

There's a certain talk-show host out of Boston who has repeatedly put forth his solution to the mess in Iraq -- "nuke 'em." He elaborates that he really means we should use the biggest, most powerful weapons at our disposal to end the insurgency in Iraq, not necessarily nuclear weapons, but whatever it takes that doesn't put a single American life at risk. I've also heard other people talk about using nuclear weapons on Iran, North Korea, and (my personal favorite) the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, the geopolitical center of terrorism.

Now, I don't think I've ever been within 50 miles of a nuclear weapon (and if I have, they certainly didn't tell me), but I have read up on them over the years. It's partly a personal thing -- my father was Army Air Force in World War II, stationed in the Pacific, and he might have been involved in any invasion of the Japanese home islands that was pre-empted by the use of atomic bombs. It's partly a guy thing -- we are attracted to things that go "boom;" I suspect it's a genetic thing, part of the Y chromosome. And part of it is, I suspect, the part that makes me think about and look at truly ugly things, in the hopes of getting other people to think about and talk about them in the hopes of avoiding having to actually deal with them in reality.

Here are three things I have learned about nuclear weapons and their use, in ascending order of importance:

1) Nuclear weapons are, essentially, nothing more than really big bombs.
Nuclear weapons are not magical. They do not have mystic powers to disintegrate everything within a certain radius. There were survivors at Hiroshima and Nagasaki who were very close to ground zero. They are not the solution to all problems. And they really aren't that useful -- we have conventional weapons now that can inflict as much devastation as smaller nuclear weapons, and with the incredible progress we have made in weapon accuracy, there are fewer and fewer uses for bombs bigger than the largest conventional ones. There really isn't much call in modern warfare for blowing up whole cities, when we can zero in on specific windows on specific buildings. Using a nuclear weapon has become the equivalent of hunting mice with shotguns.

2) Nuclear weapons are in no way simply big bombs.
Nuclear weapons are not simply explosives writ large. They have several side-effects that are extremely nasty. The first one is the electromagnetic pulse (EMP). This guarantees that any electronics (including my beloved computer) that is not specifically protected ("hardened") within a certain radius will be fried beyond repair.
The second effect is radiation. The very land around a nuclear blast will be poisoned by radiation, from levels ranging from mild nuisance to kill you in minutes. And it will stay that way for a very, very long time. In short, don't nuke any place important, because you won't be able to occupy it for the foreseeable future.
The third is fallout. Radioactive material doesn't stay around, it wanders. The lighter residue gets carried by the winds everywhere, and simply being upwind is no guarantee of safety. The fallout from the Chernobyl meltdown ended up circling the globe. There is nothing tidy about nuclear weapons.

3) Nuclear weapons, both strategic and tactical, are above all political weapons.
The decision to use nuclear weapons is always a political one. The reaction around the world to the use of nuclear weapons would be instant revulsion, and the offending nation would find itself an international pariah. And if that nation happens to be one as disliked as we currently are, and has the record of being the only nation to ever use them in anger before, it would be even greater. The sheer cost of using such a weapon would, in nearly any circumstance, vastly outweigh whatever benefits that would be gained.

Now, the United States has very carefully never spelled out its policy on the use of nuclear weapons. We have lumped them into the same category as chemical and biological weapons and called them collectively "Weapons of Mass Destruction," and said that we reserve the right to strike back with them if we are first attacked with WMDs. We have also refused to foreswear their first use, saying that we cannot predict what circumstances might arise that would leave us no choice to "go nuclear."

Practically speaking, though, I don't see the United States using nuclear weapons any time soon. Their presence remains a tremendous deterrant to anyone wishing to destroy us on the magnitude that the Soviet Union threatened, but there simply aren't any circumstances around that would lend themselves to being solved with the use of nuclear weapons.

The only exceptions I can see would be in Iran or North Korea. If we receive proof that either of those two rogue nations are in possession of nuclear weapons (having already demonstrated they have the means to deliver them), I can see us using low-yield nuclear weapons to go after their underground research facilities. Especially if we can deny it, and blame it on a fortuitous "work accident," much like the occasional Palestinian would-be bomber blowing himself up.

Or, perhaps, after one of those two nations actually uses a nuke. If that happens, and we see the loss of Seoul, or Jerusalem, or Tel Aviv, I can see the nuclear elimination of their nuclear facilities, followed shortly thereafter by massive devastation by conventional means.

But God help us all if that ever happens.

J.



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Comments (31)

The greatest power nukes ha... (Below threshold)
Omni:

The greatest power nukes have as weapons is that they create FEAR, in a way that nothing else can.

A quick correction from a P... (Below threshold)
Jack:

A quick correction from a Physicist who stacks atoms for a living:

It is almost completely impossible for a " work accident" in a facility to result in the kind of explosion that would occur from a nuclear strike. It is very difficult to get the runaway chain reaction that results in a nuclear explosion unless you satisfy the "Goldilocks criterion" of getting things "just right. In general, in an accident the chain reaction dies out with only a radiation spike (no explosion), or the energy that is released blows the reactive mass apart before enough energy is generated for a large scale blast.

It would be very, very disingenuous for us to target a nuclear facility (even with conventional explosives) and claim the resulting explosion was due to a "work accident."

Jack, please. Don't confuse... (Below threshold)
Jay Tea:

Jack, please. Don't confuse the issue with FACTS. Leave me my little fantasy...

But are you saying that it's very, very improbable for scientists working on their first nuclear device, under tremendous pressure from their government to get it NOW and all safety concerns are secondary, to accidentally set the device off in the final assembly and testing stages? Damn, you're ruining the plots of a bunch of books and movies for me...

Like I said at the outset, Jack, I'm no expert and I always gladly defer to those who actually have two clues to rub together. But I think we could "sell" the accident scenario to those who either don't know any better (such as me) or those who would be glad to accept it (again, such as me) as simply more "comfortable" than the reality.

J.

I've actually written that ... (Below threshold)

I've actually written that I can't imagine the U.S. using a nuke (other than perhaps a bunker-buster type nuke in a desert somewhere) again ever.

The political considerations being what they are, I think we could lose a city, and we still wouldn't be able to pull the trigger on another city filled with "innocents."

(Note: I'd have no problem with it, but I'm not King).

The kind of "bunker buster"... (Below threshold)

The kind of "bunker buster" nukes we have at the moment are "only" accurate within about 10 meters and are delivered via manned bomber. That's why we want to design and build the next generation that will be capable of being delivered by cruise missles and be accurate to a few feet.

The trick with using them (especially on N. Korea) is to take ALL the facilities out AT THE SAME TIME. Otherwise, N. Korea or Iran adopts a "use 'em or lose 'em" policy and we have a disaster never seen before in the history of human civilization.

BTW, even bunker busters would generate enough fallout to make China (bomb N. Korea) or Russia (bomb Iran) VERY NERVOUS. Possibly nervous enough to retaliate.

I would certainly hope we d... (Below threshold)
Tim in PA:

I would certainly hope we don't use nukes in Iraq; the number of bad guys, contrasted with the huge number of civilians we are trying to help, makes their use wholly unwarranted.

For similar reasons, I don't think we would be justified in using nukes as a first strike weapon against places like Iran and North Korea; too many innocents. Our conventional capabilities are orders of magnitude beyond what they were in WW2. Today, a decision like the one to nuke Japan would be a bad call.

I don't think nukes make a good retaliatory weapon against terrorism, either, since I'm sure the jihadis would just love for us to nuke a Muslim nation. We're better than that, and I'd bet you that plenty of soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors feel the same way and would be willing to put their asses on the line to make the world a better place.

Fallout can be limited base... (Below threshold)
Steve L.:

Fallout can be limited based on the height of the airburst of the weapon. Fallout is created when the fireball of the explosion actually touched the ground and draws dirt upward. If the air burst is high enough, the overpressure effects (which causes the greatest destruction) are fine and the fireball does not touch the ground, thus limiting fallout.

Jack is correct about a nuclear facility. For the chain reaction to occur, the fuel has to be in a very specific shape. In a nuclear weapon, the shape is a sphere and the reaction occirs very rapidly when the fuel reaches critical mass, causing an explosion. In a reactor, the rods are not in the correct shape, so the reaction stays sub-critical. The only thing that will happen is that the rate of the reaction will increase, generating more heat. Eventually, the heat will reach a temperature that causes the rods to begin to melt and the hot fuel burns through the wall of the reactor. Hence the term "meltdown."

Someone tell Major Kong abo... (Below threshold)

Someone tell Major Kong about that Doomsday device..

Steve L. is correct: you ca... (Below threshold)
kevino:

Steve L. is correct: you can limit the fallout.

However, there will be some fallout, and the political consequences of that will be very bad. For example, if you nuke Iraq the prevailing wind takes the fallout over CHINA.

Okay. We'll MOAB them.... (Below threshold)
Nomorelies:

Okay. We'll MOAB them.

The current residents of Hi... (Below threshold)

The current residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be very upset to learn how radioactive thier cities are...

I was with you except for that one little point. There is exactly zero evidence that the detonation of a nuclear weapon will make the target so radioactive it'll glow for eons.

If you want nearly permanent destruction, look at the former site of Carthage, or that island the Soviets dosed with anthrax, or even some of the sites where the Hittites first refined iron ore. Or, look at Iraq desert today, after Tamurlane got through wrecking the irrigation system in the 1300's.

- Two points and an affirma... (Below threshold)

- Two points and an affirmation ... Getting things right, "The Goldilocks" conditions, is in fact very difficult under the best of circumstances. Thats why in general, other than accidental exposure to working personel from the material they handle, so called broken arrow's, the chances of an actual nuclear detonation is practically zero.... Atomic energy plants will not detonate in a fissional or fusion explosion. They experience meltdown of the containment vessel which is an entirely different problem. That generates a hydrogen bubble which can explode, in the case of Chernobyl, or not, in the case of Three Mile Island. Then the problem becomes nuclear material dispersion... Korea, along the 38th parrallel, was mined for years with "limited" nuclear land mines. We've actually had small nuclear warheads with very limited after radiation effects for years but they prove basically impractical on the battlefield. The MOAB, and now the newer MOP designs, are much more effective with zero after radiation.....

Has anyone ever read "The S... (Below threshold)
Henry:

Has anyone ever read "The Sum of All Fears" by Tom Clancy?

Its a very good book. Yes I know it became a movie recently. However. Tom Clancy is one author who really does his homework. One of the chapters is a technical write-up of exactly how the nuclear bomb (that blows up the superbowl) goes off.

Jay, in one respect, nuclea... (Below threshold)

Jay, in one respect, nuclear bombs are in fact very different from ordinary bombs. (I'm not an expert either, but I play one on my blog.)

Nuclear bombs, particularly fusion bombs, release about three-fourths of their energy as thermal radiation: visible light, ultraviolet, soft x-rays, that kind of thing. If a bomb is airburst on a clear day, this thermal pulse has a radius much greater than the actual blast radius. It's so intense that it can start fires miles and miles away from ground zero. And at ground zero — the point on the ground right below the airburst — the thermal radiation can be in the range of a hundred joules per square centimeter. At those levels, anything that can burn will. The firestorm effect would be far, far worse than the initial blast.

A nuclear bomb burst at altitude would be equivalent to a really, really big bomb immediately followed by an entire infantry division of guys with flamethrowers dousing everything in the area with jellied gasoline.

On the subject of radiation, though … interestingly, the bigger bombs are cleaner. Yield is increased through fusion boosting, and fusion produces less fallout than fission. For example, the 50-plus-megaton tsar bomba detonation that the USSR carried out in 1961 was something like 97% fusion, 3% fission. It was the largest nuclear explosion ever created by humans, and it produced very little fallout.

On the other hand, a 20-kiloton fission bomb detonated in the cab of a Ryder truck in front of the Port Authority Bus Terminal would create a massive amount of fallout. It all depends on the situation.

- Jeff - You probably just ... (Below threshold)

- Jeff - You probably just tripped every "red flag" intercept at NSA Langley with that last paragraph... *chuckle*....

Heh. Yeah. Oops. Attention,... (Below threshold)

Heh. Yeah. Oops. Attention, Echelon guys: not a terrorist. Repeat, not a terrorist.

Jay Tea and Spoon... (Below threshold)

Jay Tea and Spoons:

I sincerely hope you are wrong about the our our unwillingness to engage in a nuclear response to a nuclear attack. That's been a standard part of U. S. defense doctrine for at least 40 years. IMO, the failure to make such a response would be likely to encourage such an attack by state actors under the (possibly mistaken) impression that we would not respond.

Jay Tea,I'm very g... (Below threshold)

Jay Tea,

I'm very glad you made this post, because I listen to the Jay Severin "Extreme Games" program in Boston to which you refer. He has an afternoon/evening drive slot. He is a libertarian/conservative who comes across as a very savvy political analyst. Severin's knowledge of domestic politics seems second to none. However, he has been all wet on Iraq for months and it makes me nuts.

I essence, Severin says that the US should have invaded, searched for WMDs, and then packed up and left. He does not view the current war as part of the war on terror. He advocates the use of nuclear weapons (or MOABs or area bombing, the weapon isn't important) on Iraq rather than spent the life of a single US soldier.

Severin has become increasingly frustrated with his audience of late, because most of the calls he gets from listeners disagree with him. Many of these callers are service people or have some military experience. But Severin clings to his position that Iraq isn't worth the bones of a single US Marine.

Severin seems to be an all-or-nothingist. Nuke them or leave them alone. He does not seem to appreciate that there is a toolset of military actions. He says that the US using "house-to-house" tactics to eliminate the enemy while minimizing civilian casualties makes President Bush a criminal.

Severin supports Bush in general but he is very hard on him for the war. He does not think that altering Iraq's society to make it more democratic or to deny its resources to the Islamist enemy is either worthy or even possible to achieve. This is why he busts out the nukes from time to time.

I'm afraid that Severins knowledge of history and military affairs is far, far lower than his knowledge of domestic US politics. I tend to turn him off whenever there is an operation in progress such as Fallujah because I find his rants at such times defetatist and demoralizing.

Just because I'm an annoyin... (Below threshold)
Boyd:

Just because I'm an annoying stickler for precision, a couple of corrections:

1) Jay, your criterion for nuking North Korea has already been met. They have developed a small number of nuclear weapons, but don't yet have the means to get them to the lower 48.

2) Hunter, NSA is at Ft. Meade, MD. CIA is at Langley, VA.

I sincerely hope you are... (Below threshold)
Steve L.:

I sincerely hope you are wrong about our unwillingness to engage in a nuclear response to a nuclear attack. That's been a standard part of U. S. defense doctrine for at least 40 years.

This is a very good point. The willingness to use nuclear weapons is key to deterence. One of the great misconceptions of the nuclear era has been that the US has stated it would only use nukes in response to an attack. In fact, the stated policy of the United States has been that we reserve the right of first use of nuclear weapons.

Imagine if you had a gun in your house. If a burglar knew that you would only shoot it if he shot at you first, would there be any fear on his part? Of course not. The fear comes from the idea that you would use it.

Personally, I believe that any leader worth his salt would respond to such an attack appropriately. Even the most anti-nuke President (who I believe could never be elected today) would find it in the nation's (and his) best interest to retaliate.

Do we know that, Boyd? I've... (Below threshold)

Do we know that, Boyd? I've heard it repeated many times that the DPRK has a few nuclear weapons, but as far as I know they've never tested one. Do we know that they have them, or are we just presuming?

(Author's disclaimer: I ... (Below threshold)
Tig:

(Author's disclaimer: I am in no way an expert on any of the matters I'm about to discuss. I've never served in the military, never held any sort of government office, have minimal training and/or experience in matters political, and only a smattering of formal education about politics and government. I'm just one guy who reads a hell of a lot, who remembers a lot of what I read, who listens to those who know, and has way, way too much time to think about things.)

Usually when I am standin' 'round eavesdroppin' on other people's conversations and hear someone lead in with somethin' like the above, I always seem to hear a big round of chorus of ""Then why don't you jes' shut the f*ck up!" 'Course, then ag'in, with the emergence of the Internet, yada yada . . . ;)

- Boyd - NSA Ft. Meade is t... (Below threshold)

- Boyd - NSA Ft. Meade is the "Nuts and Bolts" along with the "birdcage" nearby. NSA maintains an on-site Office of information "Dispersal" at Langley. Saying anymore than that would be TMI. carry on....

Jay Tea--Unless I am... (Below threshold)
Flakbait:

Jay Tea--
Unless I am completely misreading your statement you think it would be okay to nuke someone and then lie about it so that the uneducated public doesn't know you nuked them? That kind of attitude is, in my mind, worse than the, "let's nuke them all and let God sort it out!" types.
To heck with losing our credibility by executing nuclear first strike. Executing first strike and then doing a ham-handed job trying to cover it up? Good God.

Concerning EMP's...
To my remembrance and according to data from various sources (links follow), a nuke is sort of a one-trick pony as far as EMP's go. Either you airburst/groundburst it and blow things up, or you put it about 30 miles up and do zero damage to the ground, but create a massive electro-magnetic pulse. Additionally, the 30-mile area gives you nearly continent-sized coverage, but only that-- so for nuking cities in Iraq/Iran/Syria/North Korea, EM effects would be limited to problems with picking up radio frequencies in the general area of the blast for about 72 hours. That's not too bad at all.
Federation of American Scientists
How Stuff Works
Milnet

Finally, the fallout from something like the Chernobyl station, which is *on* the ground and where the nuclear reactor literally caught fire and melted along with everything else that happened, is pretty bad. The fallout from an airburst, due to the fact that you're kicking up significantly less dust that way, is much less menacing. Unless we glassed large portions of Iraq (that would be groundbursts) the only true fallout problem there would be would be countries whining just to whine, much like with the Kyoto Treaty thing.
China, who would be downwind of Iraq, certainly would... even though over half (23 out of 45) of their test shots were atmospheric, and a 20-year study conducted by China specifically found that its atmospheric testing 'did not cause any radioactive harm to the neighboring countries downwind of China, or to its regions of Beijing, Lanzhou, or Dunhuang, based on over 20 years of surveys.'
The only reason the "wah! Fallout!" cries would hold up is because the subtext would be, "Wah! [US-caused] Fallout [that we can use as a way to paint the United States as imperialist cowboys bent on taking over the world]!"
References: CNS: China's Nuclear Program
CNS Nuke Test list

In the end, the only real issue with using nukes is the political one. MOABs are as destructive as a small nuke, but don't have the almost half-century of subtextual scariness associated with them-- oooooh, better duck and cover! The Bomb is coming for you! Saying "nuke" in a political conversation is similar to saying "racism" or "bigotry." There's so much behind the word that it's impossible to bring it up and then discuss it rationally.

Chuck:I didn't wan... (Below threshold)
Jay Tea:

Chuck:

I didn't want to get in to the difference between ground and airbursts. I didn't want to get too involved in that level of minutiae.

Flakbait: When I say "I can see something happening," I am saying just that -- I think it is a feasible possibility. It is not an endorsement of any kind. I believe the phrase "plausible deniability" was first coined by a Republican administration, and is one of the watchwords of government today.

J.

Jeff: Unless I'm mistaken (... (Below threshold)
Boyd:

Jeff: Unless I'm mistaken (and that's certainly a possibility), they've claimed to have several nuclear weapons, which I believe would likely be sufficient to meet Jay's criterion.

Hunter: I assume you're saying that NSA performs its illegal activities at Langley, because (I didn't think of this when I was responding originally) the laws which are the basis for USSID 18 prohibit NSA from monitoring communications by "US persons" within the US. And, by the way, during my 20 years in the business, I never saw anything but assiduous efforts to avoid violating that prohibition.

Jack and Steve L. have comm... (Below threshold)
TR:

Jack and Steve L. have commented that a "work accident" at an enemy nuclear weapons production facility is exceptionally unlikely to result in a proper chain reaction because conditions have to be just right for a nuclear weapon to function.

I think you are limiting your thinking to potential mishaps with the assembly and handling of the physics package. What about a screw-up with the safing/arming/fuzing system? With all due respect, you have _no way_ of knowing what sort of system the Iranians have devised. It could be anything.

A fault in the safing/arming/fuzing system, wired to a functional firing system, could indeed set off a nuclear explosion.

Overall, it's the usual sta... (Below threshold)
Dim:

Overall, it's the usual statist response to a statist problem. As is been the case lately, there is no state so using the big hammers isn't only pointless, but so counterproductive that it could destroy the state trying to use/intimidate the foe.

If the US tries to bomb its way free of the morass it's in the Middle East, there will be such an outpouring of hatred and revenge that nothing will stop it. And mostly independent I wager. That's the fear and the legacy: an army of serpents, each deadly but separate. I can't conceive how a modern army can fight something like that.

I hope Bush doesn't get so far into the sinkhole that bombing becomes a plausible defense strategy.

- Boyd ... The process of E... (Below threshold)

- Boyd ... The process of Elint, and the enherent difficulties therein, are centered in the mass of information that passes through our communications pipelines each day. In one 24 hour period enough bytes occur to keep an army of interpreters busy for years. Thats why the systems use "trigger" words, phrases, and sentences. When it comes to anything that might threaten the security of the U.S. I can assure you there is no act, legal prohibition, or law that would prevent "assidious" monitoring of open public systems such as the Internet. The question of privacy lies in the fact that no one in the system knows or cares if Joe has cybersex with linda. But if Mohammod decides to email Ali about an upcoming terrorist act, that would set off the alarm bells fast. Whether you choose to believe that or not is up to you. Its profoundly unprovable by design. We did the first systems for NSA that were automatic and very low level computer driven. The first day of operation garned a good sized store room of punch cards. The built in limits of information gathering became profoundly obvious. Since then of course hardware/software has grown by orders of magnitude in capability. But the safeguards of the system remain as always. The more efficiently you can collect, the more you do collect, and the less you can waste time on incidentals such as Joe and Linda. the system happily is self regulating...

A pretty scary discussion.<... (Below threshold)

A pretty scary discussion.

A nuclear disaster at some kind of facility is of a much different calibre and leaves a very different footprint than a nuclear explosion. If you planned to fake any such incident anywhere, the true origin of the accident would surely be identified. This would be speeded by the involvement of the international community by this time. Then it would be a case of "The US attacked us... what are we going to do to fight back.". Not a good situation at all, and rather naive on behalf of whoever came up with it.

If you nuke... anything. There would be an ensuing irridiated cloud of material that could travel thousands of miles in any direction. Fallout does not really care about political borders, and it would travel into the countries neighbouring Iran/N. Korea. If a single citizen from another nation was killed, the retort from those countries would also be disastrous. South Korea is a key ally to the US.

Plus, depending on the target, you could also kill thousands and thousands of innocent civilians. Who would be more just then? Who would be the more barbaric? The country who killed thousands and thousands? Surely not.

The solution? No nukes, just keep fighting house to house.

Julien commented that "a nu... (Below threshold)
TR:

Julien commented that "a nuclear disaster at some kind of facility is of a much differnt calibre and leaves a very different footprint than a nuclear explosion."

Not necessarily. What if the disaster is caused by fault in the control mechanism of a functional nuclear weapon? The weapon fires and destroys the facility from right on top of a workbench inside the building, just as it would if delivered there by a "bunker-buster" missile.

Assuming that the yield and fallout chemistry of the detonating weapon and the target weapon are a match, how could you tell what happened? And how well do they even have to match? Iran denies even having nuclear weapons at all. Who knows what kind of yield their secret weapons are supposed to produce.

Could it be determined that the facility had been hit by a missile? I don't know. I think the destruction at ground zero would be so great that it would be difficult to say for sure.

Eyewitness accounts of con-trails, radar logs, etc. would probably provide better proof that the facility had been attacked than the "footprint" left by the explosion.

In any event, I agree that the stakes would be huge for the attacking nation. The cost of being found out (let alone the huge number of casualties and massive fallout from blasting all the bomb factory's nuclear material all over the place) probably far outweighs the benefits.




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