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Doomsday Deluxe

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I frequently enjoy watching the Doomsday Preppers program on the National Geographic Channel.  I get a particular kick out of hearing the reason each particular family gives for building a bunker and making plans for Armageddon.  At the end of each story, the producers at Nat Geo usually reference the consensus of expert opinion concerning the particular doomsday scenario discussed by the featured family.  A popular fear is that earth will get knocked off its axis, causing a polar shift.  (You’ve probably heard Matt Damon mention that one on the TD Ameritrade commercial – wherein he credits the Mayans for starting the rumor.)  Although many of the preppers’ fears are far-fetched, there are certainly many legitimate causes for the sort of concern which could lead a perfectly reasonable person to initiate efforts toward the Ultimate Plan B.  My personal favorite threat is Fukushima.

A number of reports have recently been published concerning the efforts made by more upscale preppers to build designer bunkers.  This situation really cries out for a new television program:  Beverly Hills Bunkers or Celebrity Preppers of Palm Beach.

The Raw Story website ran an AFP report describing the efforts by developer Larry Hall to convert abandoned missile silos into luxury bunkers.  At this point, Hall has found four buyers who have plunked down nearly $2 million each for a silo bunker:

“They worry about events ranging from solar flares, to economic collapse, to pandemics to terrorism to food shortages,” Hall told AFP on a tour of the site.

These “doomsday preppers”, as they are called, want a safe place and he will be there with them because Hall, 55, bought one of the condos for himself. He says his fear is that sun flares could wipe out the power grid and cause chaos.

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Built to withstand an atomic blast, even the most paranoid can find comfort inside concrete walls that are nine feet thick and stretch 174 feet (53 meters) underground.

Instead of simply setting up shop in the old living quarters provided for missile operators, Hall is building condos right up the missile shaft. Seven of the 14 underground floors will be condo space selling for $2 million a floor or $1 million a half floor. Three and a half units have been sold, two contracts are pending and only two more full units are available, Hall said.

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He is also installing an indoor farm to grow enough fish and vegetables to feed 70 people for as long as they need to stay inside and also stockpiling enough dry goods to feed them for five years.

The top floor and an outside building above it will be for elaborate security. Other floors will be for a pool, a movie theater and a library, and when in lockdown mode there will be floors for a medical center and a school.

Complex life support systems provide energy supplies from sources of conventional power, as well as windmill power and generators. Giant underground water tanks will hold water pre-filtered through carbon and sand.

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Interested buyers have included an NFL player, a racing car driver, a movie producer and famous politicians, he said, but he now requires all the money up front.

Blake Ellis of CNN Money gave us a peek at how “the one percent” is getting ready for doomsday:

Northwest Shelter Systems, which offers shelters ranging in price from $200,000 to $20 million, has seen sales surge 70% since the uprisings in the Middle East, with the Japanese earthquake only spurring further interest. In hard numbers, that’s 12 shelters already booked when the company normally sells four shelters per year.

Who spent $20 million on a bunker?  Oprah?  Bill Gates?  Lloyd Blankfein?

Inquiring minds want to know how their favorite celebrities will be riding out The Apocalypse.  Which porn stars will Charlie Sheen invite to his Doomsday Den?  How many people within one degree of Kevin Bacon will Kyra Sedgwick allow into his bunker?

There is definitely a television show here – and it’s bound to draw a bigger audience than the number watching Doomsday Preppers.  Any guesses as to which network runs with this?


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The Haunted Computer

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January 8, 2009

On January 6, Slate featured an interesting report by William Saletan concerning a Defense Department proposal request for a new computer application to help children of deployed service personnel in coping with the lack of parental communication.  The concept is described as a “Virtual Dialogue Application for Families of Deployed Service Members”.  It supposedly would provide an opportunity for children (within the specified age range of 3 and 5 years old) to have a “virtual” conversation with a deployed parent who (for whatever reason) would be unavailable for telephone or on-line contact.  The idea is to have a video image of the parent (possibly high-resolution and 3-D) available to “converse” with the child.  The application is to be either PC-based or web-based.  Here is how it was described on the Defense Department’s TechMatch website:

The Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury recognizes that family outreach and advocacy is pivotal for both the psychological health of the family and the resilience of the Service Member.  Deployments put stress on the entire family, especially small children and communication is key.  The ability to reach out and communicate with loved ones from areas of conflict is better than at any time in history.  Nevertheless, the stresses of deployment might be softened if spouses and especially children could conduct simple conversations with their loved ones in immediate times of stress or prolonged absence.  Historically, families have derived comfort and support from photographs or mementos, but current technology SHOULD allow for more personal interactive messages of support.  Over 80% of American children between the ages of three and five regularly use computers, and 83% of families have a computer in their home.  So, computer-based applications would resonate with children and capture their interest and imagination.  The challenge is to design an application that would allow a child to receive comfort from being able to have simple, virtual conversations with a parent who is not available “in-person”.  We are looking for innovative applications that explore and harness the power of advanced interactive multimedia computer technologies to produce compelling interactive dialogue between a Service member and their families via a pc- or web-based application using video footage or high-resolution 3-D rendering.  The child should be able to have a simulated conversation with a parent about generic, everyday topics.  For instance, a child may get a response from saying “I love you”, or “I miss you”, or “Good night mommy/daddy.”  This is a technologically challenging application because it relies on the ability to have convincing voice-recognition, artificial intelligence, and the ability to easily and inexpensively develop a customized application tailored to a specific parent.  We are seeking development of a tool which can be used to help families (especially, children) cope with deployments by providing a means to have simple verbal interactions with loved ones for re-assurance, support, affection, and generic discussion when phone and internet conversations are not possible.

Upon reading about this, the first question that came to my mind concerned situations where the parent unfortunately is killed in the line of duty.  Is the child to continue using this application to have “virtual conversations” with a deceased parent?  Would that be healthy?  William Saletan voiced a similar concern in his article:

The deployed parent still has a body, of course.  But, being deployed, he’s at risk of becoming disembodied the old-fashioned way.  At that point, real-time video is no longer an option, and the language of the DoD project — to provide verbal interactions “when phone and internet conversations are not possible” — takes on a whole new meaning.

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I’m not saying this kind of ghost is for everyone.  Some of us don’t like our parents.  Some of us find the idea of keeping them around bizarre or sacrilegious.  But I dare you to tell a child who has lost her father in Iraq or Afghanistan that she can’t keep a virtual rendition of him to help her go to sleep.  And I dare you to stop the millions of others who will want ghosts of their own when today’s military project becomes, once again, tomorrow’s mass market.

The reaction to this idea from those involved in the mental health field should be interesting.  Whether or not the military ever embraces such a computer application, Saletan’s point about the “mass market” deserves further pondering.  There will be the inevitable pornographic variations on this project’s theme.  Nevertheless, could such an application be configured in other ways to be of use to adults?  How about “Virtual Seance” — a website that allows users to “communicate” with dead historical figures or celebrities?  Will living celebrities (or, should I say, “has beens”) have websites where fee-paying fans can have a “virtual conversation” with that celebrity?  Will politicians use this technology to allow their constituents “virtual face time” with the pol to vent their spleens?

Healthy or not, this computer application seems like an idea that will not quickly go away.