Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Thailand Mad At John Oliver, Nuclear Weapons, #GoGetTheGeckos
July 28, 2014 7:42 PM - Season 1, Episode 12 - Subscribe

This week: Flordia Representative Curt Clawson mistakes Americans for Indian government figures on camera, ISIS may have ordered genital mutilation for women in an Iraqi city (but may not have, at least they deny it), Thailand's government annoyed with Last Week Tonight's coverage of their silly prince (with a bit about nations with a lèse-majesté law), newscasters annoyed at what they're covering, a long piece on nuclear weapons in the US (YouTube, 15m), politicians using outdated pop culture references, and the temporary loss of that Russian gecko sex satellite (YouTube 3.5m).
posted by JHarris (18 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
News Recap
Curt Clawson (R-Flordia) mistakes American officials for officials from India during a hearing, resulting in what John Oliver calls "a slow-moving car crash."

Unconfirmed reports are that ISIS has ordered all women in one Iraqi city to undergo genital mutilation. ISIS denies the report, thank god. Oliver, to ISIS: "The fact that seems like something you would do still does not reflect particularly well on you as an organization." And we're reminded that, while it may not be practiced in Iraq, it is still happening in many places around the world, including Egypt, where it has occurred to 91% of married women aged 15 to 49. In light of this horrifying fact abut Egypt, Oliver asks how it can be that, in regards to the nation, "pyramids the first things we fucking think of?!"

Thailand, returning to the story from a few weeks ago about their "buffoonish clown prince," and the dog he held a party for. Apparently, Thailand's government thinks John Oliver's statements may actually be a threat to their monarchy. Oliver: "OH SHIT!" and "I will say this, if I can bring down your monarchy, you have, at best, a wobbly monachy." The source is a leaked confidential Thai document about overseas influences that might undermine their military government. Three English words readable on the page: JOHN WILLIAM OLIVER. "I think deep down I always knew everyone would find out my middle name thanks to an angry Thai military government." The thing is, Thailand has a lèse-majesté law, "which can jail people for insulting the monarchy, which is stupid. Other countries have this kind of law too; they're stupid as well. If I'm not going to Thailand anytime soon, which apparently I'm not, let's burn some more bridges!" "Hey Kuwait! What's up with your current Emir?" (Sabah al-Sabah) "He looks like a police sketch of evil walnut! He looks like what you'd get if Freddie Mercury fucked a sea turtle!" Specifically called out for having lèse-majesté laws: Netherlands, Kuwait and Denmark.

And Now: Newscasters Questioning Whether They Should Be Covering The Stories They Are, At That Very Moment, Covering
Difficult for me to summarize. Suffice to say, there's a lot of newscasters out there annoyed with their producers.

Main Story: Nuclear Weapons
In a clip from an old educational short, a breezy announcer states: "Sundays, holidays, vacation time, we must be ready, every day! All the time! To do the right thing! If the atomic bomb explodes. Duck and cover!" Oliver responds, "I'll say this for the 1950s, they had the perfect blend of optimism and pessimism. 'The death blast is coming, but we'll survive it if we all get under this picnic blanket!'"

"By the 1980s, attitudes had changed. The TV movie The Day After had a slightly different tone. See if you can spot it!" The clip: EXPLOSIONS. FLAMES ENGULFING SOMEONE. "AAAAAAAAUUUUGGGGHHHHH!" BUILDINGS COLLAPSING. "Danny!" KABOOM. SCREAMING FACES MET BY FIRE. CATS AND DOGS LIVING TOGETHER, MASS HYSTERIA.

But we don't seriously worry about nuclear annihilation anymore. Maybe we should. America still has 4,804 nuclear warheads. "Far more than enough, not just to destroy Earth, but to provide 4th of July fireworks for Martians."

Their locations are, currently, silos in Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota. Yet the silos are in bad repair: a door to a corrodor leading to some in Wyoming cannot be closed; it's propped open with a crowbar. And the equipment is so old that the launch order computer is covered with lights and switches and comes with an eight-inch floppy disk. Not even the 5 1/4-inch ones our microcomputers used to use, the big ones, what IBM once called a "Type 1 Diskette." On finding out, Oliver utters his second "HOLY SHIT!" of the night. "Those barely look powerful enough to run Oregon Trail!" (They might not be! According to IBM, "The first 8-inch floppy disk had a storage capacity of about 80 kilobytes." That's about 3,000 punched cards!) "People who work there must watch Wargames and say, 'One day! One day we'll get to play with that stuff!'"

North Dakota and Montana don't fare any better, with "Marginal" efficiency ratings and cheating on proficiency tests. A guy was caught sleeping in the silo with the door open. (Apparently sleeping in there is allowed, presumably for readiness reasons, but only when the door is locked.) Some of these issues were discovered by food workers. And it's not just low-level officers who have their issues.

"Let's meet two of our top people in charge of our most powerful missiles. First up, Major General Michael Carey. He was relieved of command last October for spectacular reasons." CNN clip: "According to an Air Force Inspector General's report, on a recent trip to Russia, Air Force General Michael Carey was often intoxicated, rude, and spent a lot of time with foregin women." (edit) "He often interrupted presentations. He often interrupted translators with annoying comments when he gave toasts." (edit) "That really irritated the Russians." Oliver: "Just think about that. The man overseeing our ICBMs was too drunk for the Russians! And CNN barely skimmed the surface of this story. The Inspector General's report reads like Ron Burgandy Goes To Russia." While in Russia, Carey behaved in a manner not exactly decorous. Oliver: "Take a moment to consider the run of poor decisions that are required before you're told you can't play guitar with a Beatles cover band when you're drunk at a Mexican restaurant in Russia!"

The second top person oversaw all the men we've seen thus far: Vice Admiral Tim Giardina. "The President relieved him of his command last year for an even weirder reason." CBS This Morning: "Timothy Giardina's undoing began with a local criminal investigation in Iowa, where he was spotted on surveillance cameras using counterfeit poker chips at the Horseshoe Casino in Council Bluffs." Oliver: "I'm sorry, but a Vice Admiral has to have the mental fortitude to fool an Iowa pit boss."

"[...]this means, let's recap, that within the last twelve months, we were in a situation where, in the event of us launching a nuclear strike, the President's command would theoretically have gone through a man gambling with fake poker chips, who would have then tried to call a drunk guy wrestling with a Russian George Harrison, who would have then needed to send someone with a bag full of burritos to wake up an officer to tell him to go grab an LP-sized floppy disk and begin the solumn process of ending the world as we know it."

Were we lucky nothing bad has happened? Maybe we're luckier than that. "Over the years, America has had some pretty terrifying 'Almost-geddons.'" Like The 1961 Goldsboro B-52 crash, which may have wiped out the town of Goldsboro, North Carolina, if the dumped, nearly-primed missile had gone off. "You dropped an armed nuclear bomb on your own country, and it is frankly amazing that you don't talk about that more often! There is genuinely a weirdly restrained sign marking the event" (pictured) "calling it a 'nuclear mishap,' when it should really say, 'HOLY FUCK! You have no idea what nearly happened here.'

"I know what you're thinking, 'We nearly blew up one of the Carolinas, but that's basically why we have two.' In that case, how about that one time we risked blowing up Arkansas?" Eric Schlosser, author of Command And Control, on CBS: "Someone dropped a socket, in the silo, and the socket fell about 70 feet, pierced the missile, caused a fuel leak, and then there was a huge explosion."

Oliver: "Just think about the system we have designed. In the rock-paper-scissors logic, Socket beats Nuclear Missile."

And from 2007, on CBS: "Six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were loaded onto a B-52 by mistake, flown across the country, and left unguarded on the tarmac. No one noticed for 36 hours." Oliver: "And that must have been a hell of a moment when they realized. 'Hey, guys, um, those things that have been our there for a day and a half, there's no way that those are nuclear SHHHIIIIIIITT!'"

"It seems now that we have too many nuclear weapons to take care of properly. So, why aren't we reducing them? Well, we were, to be fair, since 1988 we got rid of nearly 18,000 warheads. But recently things have slowed down a lot. President Obama has reduced our arsenal by just 309, which is crazy. At a time of budgetary cutbacks, we are spending $355 billion dollars over the next decade (Source: Congressional Budget Office) for something we don't need, and don't take that from me, take it from someone who actually knows something about this."

General Colin Powell: "The one thing I convinced myself, of, after all these years of exposure to the use of nuclear weapons, is that they were useless."

Oliver: "Yeah. Nuclear weapons are basically like America's T-Rex arms, they're essentially useless, and you are plenty scary enough without them."

"When you have 4,800 of something that you don't need, you're a fucking horder at that point! It's like having 4,800 cats. Sure, each one might have made sense when you got it, but it happened so gradually that you didn't really notice that things had gotten out of hand, and now you have too many of these agents of chaos and destruction, and one of these days one of them might kill you."

What's stopping us from reducing our nuclear stockpile? Two key things.

First is politics. Missile silos are pork, and lawmakers will shift heaven and earth to find ways to defend something bringing money to their states. "And they'll fight it with ironclad logic like this:"

Rep. Steve Daines (R-Montana), from C-SPAN: "We know that maintaining our current silos is the best interest, and in the best interest, of taxpayers, because rebuilding them would be very expensive."

Oliver: "Let me get that straight. You're spending money on something you don't need in the hopes that you'll be saving money on the off chance one day you'll eventually, do -- what exactly are you saying there? That's like saying 'I have to hold on to my storage facility full of Aquaman action figures on the off chance that my future wife really likes them.'"

The quote from Daines was said while a bill was being debated requiring the silos be kept open until 2021. Daines was arguing for an amendment removing the end date, thus requiring that the silo be kept open indefinitely, regardless of what the Pentagon wants. "It was clearly a ridiculous amendment. Let's now watch it pass."

Clip (C-SPAN, June 10, 2014):
Daines of Montana
Amendment No. 6
On agreeing to the amendment
Republican: Yea 218, Nay 7, Pres 0, NV 8
Democratic: Yea 4, Nay 189, Pres 0, NV 6
Independent: Yea 0, Nay 0, Pres 0, NV 0
Totals: Yea 222, Nay 196, Pres 0, NV 14
"On this vote, the yeas are 222, the nays are 196, the amendment is adopted!" (gavel)

Oliver: "That is some weapons-grade bullshit! Now the Senate could still make big changes to that bill, but for that to happen, people would need to care. And that brings us to the main reason so little is being done to reduce our number of nuclear warheads. Deep down, people just don't give enough of a shit anymore." (Clip of huge crowd of people outdoors) "In the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of people pushed for disarmament in Central Park." (Clip of mostly empty House Committee room.) "But in May of this year, this is what a House hearing on nuclear security looked like." Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tennessee) on C-SPAN: "We should point out, probably one of the few hearings in which the attendance of the subcommittee compares very favorably with the attendance in the audience. Because the public has not tuned in to these issues as they should[...]"

And Now: Politicians Using Increasingly Dated Pop Culture References -- Get Ready For A Lot Of Mitt Romney
A few pulls:
Mitt Romney: "Who let the dogs out?" (8 years late)
Senator Marco Rubio: "[...]that reminds me of another modern-day poet, name of Jay-Z, of a song her wrote: 'It's funny what seven days can change, it was all good, just a week ago." (14.5)
Rep. Ric Keller: "If I can quote L.L. Cool J, the rapper, 'Don't call it a comeback, I been here for years.'" (17)
Rep. Steve Cohen: "If we may go back to A Few Good Men, the movie, Jack Nicholson, 'You can't handle the truth.'" (22)
Romney: "I was thinking about Davy Crockett, remember the song? 'Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, greatest state in the land of the free, raised in the woods so he knew every tree, and he killed himself a bear when he was only three." (58)

Russia Loses Gecko Sex Satellite
Russia was studying a satellite containing geckos to observe their mating habits in zero gravity, but they lost contact with it.

Oliver: "Don't you dare laugh at that! Don't you dare laugh at the fact that Russia has lost a satellite full of sexually-active space geckos! There's nothing funny about that! This is like Apollo 13 all over again, only in Cyrillic, and with a quintet of Russian fuck-lizards instead of Tom Hanks!"

"You might be saying, 'Now John, why are you making such a big deal out of this? Aren't there more important things going on in the world?' Well yes, obviously, almost everything is more important than this. Ukraine is slarging(?) into anarchy, the Gaza cease-fire is tenuous, and we're mostly powerless to do anything about any of them, but maybe, just may be, is we could come together and accomplish just one thing, as a civilization, we could then build on that progress. And I think rescuing these space sex geckos might just be that thing. And that is why I'm issuing a challenge to humanity: go get those geckos!" #GOGETTHOSEGECKOS

A hashtag not enough? "You can and should do more! You could go onto the Kremlin's contact page, which, inexplicably, has a form allowing you to actually write Vladimir Putin a letter, which you can do at this address!" ( "Take this seriously, don't be idiots about this! The Kremlin insists, this is true, that your suggestions be, and I quote, 'specific.' And I do not know of a more specific suggestion than go get those geckos." Followed up by a number of people they got to say "go get those geckos" in front of a camera: Regis Philbin, Richard Branson, Bull Aldrin, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tim Gunn and Patrick Stewart. Closing up on a waving guy in a frog costume/spacesuit in front of video of mating lizards. G'night everyone.
posted by JHarris at 7:56 PM on July 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

Okay --

I don't know if I can keep up doing this style of Last Week Tonight post, it's really draining to spend three hours recapping a half-hour show, especially as employment desperation is reaching an extremely high level right now. I might be able to keep doing the main posts, but the lengthy recaps, unfortunately, I don't think I can keep up.

This has already caused my MST3K posts to lag for a month. I keep adding more stuff on a whim, then I feel like I have to match what I did last time, and eventually I end up spending entire evenings on it. I don't think I can continue with that.
posted by JHarris at 8:00 PM on July 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks so much for the posts! I'll look forward to them every week even when they're not this extensive.
posted by Night_owl at 11:18 PM on July 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Have to say I wasn't really keen with the program at first. I liked the concept of doing more in-depth reportage (this is a little on the edges of actual journalism as such), but didn't feel Oliver had quite mastered the rhythm of staying on camera for 15 minutes at a stretch. I think he's getting his sea legs, though, and the prison and nukes stories are definitely under-reported territory.

Still, I'm not sure I quite agree with the angles taken. The issues with nuclear weapons going down have to do with parity and ongoing agreements with, in particular, the Russians. (Current treaty regime: New START.) Also, the story focused solely on prairie-state stationed ICBMs, with no mention of SLBMs or (other than the transportation error in 2007) strategic bombers. Fifteen minutes, yes, but a little less about the drunk general and a little more about the complexity of the topic might have been nice. And I don't believe that, as stated, any launch orders would actually go through the guy who's in charge of running the program, but rather through the NMMC, a function of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

I guess I'd have liked some sort of talking head addressing why we seem to have this fucked-up missile corps and how that came to be -- and I doubt it's one guy who drinks too much on the road. Is it a deep-seated morale issue for a seemingly moribund and dead-end military function? What sorts of reforms are needed? Etc. Asking for people to show up at a Congressional hearing in DC isn't really the issue here.
posted by dhartung at 11:24 PM on July 28, 2014

JHarris, your posts are awesome. I hope you get an amazingly well-paid job with hours of free time to do more, but food+rent take some minor priority...
posted by viggorlijah at 2:18 AM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks, viggorlijah. But that's the trick, isn't it? Well, I'd even take less-than-amazingly-well-paid, so long as I could survive and pay off student loans. I continue to search....
posted by JHarris at 2:27 AM on July 29, 2014

JHarris, don't feel guilty if you can't keep making these fantastic posts. I hope you find an amazing ( even if it is less-than-amazingly-well-paid) job.
posted by Pendragon at 2:53 AM on July 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

On the bit about newscasters and their producers, I always assumed that was a gimmick. A way for everyone to lay the blame for non-news, pointless crap on somebody off-screen while still doing exactly what they want to do.

The silo story got me wondering if other nations have the same problem with aging equipment. That $300B+ figure to maintain the equipment was surprising.

JHarris, I really did wonder how you were able to do such detailed recaps. So much effort. Kudos but it's totally fine to just stick with shorter ones. Also, I hear buzzfeed has an opening. (You might have to sacrifice your integrity and lower your writing ability to get the gig.)
posted by Ik ben afgesneden at 4:14 AM on July 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

I haven't watched this one yet but I'm really looking forward to it, since Steve Daines is my terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad congressperson and I can't wait to see John rip him a new one.

I just wanted to chime in that I really appreciate everything you do for us, JHarris, and I hope you find a fantastic position soon! Fingers crossed for you.
posted by dialetheia at 10:06 AM on July 29, 2014

BTW, Beatrix hasn't been queen of the Netherlands since 30 April 2013, we now have king Willem-Alexander. And yes, majesteitsschennis is still illegal, and it's totally bonkers.
posted by Pendragon at 12:01 PM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

No, he definitely shouldn't plan on visiting Thailand for a long, long time.

It's an interesting situation with the King being at death's door for several years now, the Crown Prince being so universally loathed, and with the potential for the dutiful, much loved Princess Royal to actually succeed--the King has the power to choose his successor although he has said that it will be his son. There is a rumor that the Princess will leave the country when her father dies for her own safety.

In 1946, the King at that time (the current King's elder brother) also rumored to be unsuitable for ruling, died under mysterious circumstances. Books written about his death are banned.

Periodically there are stories in the English language Thai newspapers about (drunken) foreign visitors committing lèse-majesté, being put on trial. The accounts I've read, after being found guilty, they are pardoned by the King and then deported.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 1:17 PM on July 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Does anyone know more about the nuclear launch computers? I wonder if those were built to such incredibly rigorous standards of reliability and radiation tolerance that it could be both dangerous and unnecessary to upgrade them. As long as they're regularly maintained and tested, I bet they're a lot better at that very particular job than some slick but less proven machine. Mainly though I just think old computers are cool and I'm annoyed John made fun of them.
posted by theodolite at 1:24 PM on July 29, 2014

The 60 Minutes report has a part where a military spokesperson tells Leslie Stahl that the silos have good computer security because they aren't connected to the internet.
posted by Small Dollar at 9:05 PM on July 29, 2014

They are cool, but man, I hope they have a lot of backups of that 8-inch floppy.
posted by JHarris at 9:19 PM on July 29, 2014

the silos have good computer security because they aren't connected to the internet.

That's pretty basic Orange Book criteria.

In any case, to connect to any sort of network they would need drivers and protocols to run hardware, all of which I doubt exist.

Yes, I'm very certain this equipment is hardened against nuclear attack (although a direct hit on a silo would probably incapacitate it). But absolutely this equipment isn't something you upgrade -- or much need to.

There's no real user interface -- it's toggles and such. You're not adding new popups or decision trees. As anyone who's ever overseen a legacy system knows, if it's working and the hardware is properly maintained, it can keep working for years -- and rule #1 is don't fucking touch it. The OS is an embedded system and it isn't dependent on the floppies to boot up. My guess is that the floppies contain a Code of the Day matrix (much like you may have seen in paper form in various movies set aboard missile subs). This notwithstanding the claim that for many years the physical console code on at least some silos was set to 00000000 (I assume this is the solenoid display familiar from e.g. WarGames). My reading of that, though, is that the code as such was not as important a part in the safety protocols as portrayed in popular media. Regardless, the other function I can see being in those floppies is target coordinates. Basically, the President is going to order some sort of attack, but it isn't "launch everything" -- it is going to be a particular war plan. (Obviously, we may not be attacked by the same country in all scenarios.) So maybe it's a first strike, or maybe the Russian birds are at the pole already and it's retaliatory, or maybe it's China. The idea is that the code entered by the guys will read the coordinates from the floppies and tell the missile where to go.

And yes, those 8" floppies -- capacity probably a paltry 160K or some such -- are going to be much more robust than any media you've ever used. Less data means greater tolerances, for starters, and who knows what data redundancy they've built into the disc reader software. Bottom line, I don't look at that imagery and cringe; I feel more confident that it's proven, stable, and most important, every single system is going to be identical to every other single system, so maintenance is a cinch.

And no, you don't have Joe from the eastern North Dakota sales district showing up the day of the board meeting with a new Taiwanese tablet that you need to integrate with the WAN and somehow speak to the Burroughs mini that still runs the transaction server on COBOL. By lunchtime. Seriously -- this shit works.

Well, I hope it used to, anyway. With the guys in charge that we saw, yeah, I guess I worry that old confidence is a little misplaced these days.
posted by dhartung at 11:59 PM on July 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

(with a bit about nations with a lèse-majesté law)

OK, so (a) the top illustration on the lèse-majesté Wikipedia page is fantastic, and (b) doesn't the UK have some sort of royal slander law as well? I distinctly remember a segment on The Daily Show some years ago where Stephen Colbert made allusions to some rumors that Prince Charles had a same-sex affair and showed solidarity with gagged British reporters by deep-throating a banana... oh, here it is.
posted by psoas at 10:27 AM on July 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

NPR's airing some pieces about the missile program this week; yesterday we had a trip to the nuclear command bunker. It left me feeling more optimistic about it than the Oliver take (I mean, how bad can it be if they're watching Dr. Strangelove down there?), though apparently tonight's show will focus on the obvious question of whether we need the missiles or not, regardless of how well the program's being operated.
posted by asperity at 11:57 AM on July 30, 2014

posted by JHarris at 11:05 PM on August 3, 2014

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