Weekly Review — February 19, 2013, 8:00 am

Weekly Review

Meteoric tidings, a paraplegic piglet’s wheelchair, and Chubby Checker’s Chubby Checker check

A meteor struck Earth’s atmosphere over Russia, releasing a 300-kiloton shock wave that shattered two million square feet worth of glass in the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk, collapsed the roof of the city’s zinc factory, and injured 1,200 people before degrading into a 10-ton meteorite that landed in nearby Lake Chebarkul. Old women cried out doomsday prophecies in the streets, a nationalist politician suggested that the explosion was the test of a new American weapon, and Russia’s deputy prime minister called on world leaders to cooperate on asteroid-defense technologies. “So we stood there,” said a Chelyabinsk barmaid. “And then somebody joked, ‘Now the green men will crawl out and say hello.’ ” Fireballs streaked across the skies above Cuba and the San Francisco Bay, and a 150-foot-long asteroid that scientists had been monitoring for more than a year passed 17,150 miles[*] over Indonesia without incident. “This is a wake-up call from space,” said a former NASA astronaut who is developing asteroid-detection programs. “Wouldn’t it be silly if we got wiped out because we weren’t looking?” “This all gives us reason to think,” said a Chelyabinsk deacon in the Church of the Transfiguration. “Is the purpose of our life just to raise a family and die, or is it to live eternally?”[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8] A lightning bolt struck St. Peter’s Basilica; an underground nuclear test in P’unggye-ri, North Korea, triggered a seismic event measuring 4.9 on the Richter Scale;[*] and hackers in Great Falls, Montana, broadcast an emergency alert warning of a zombie uprising.[9][10][11][12] In Quetta, Pakistan, a bomb hidden in a water tank was rolled into an outdoor vegetable market on a tractor-trailer and detonated by a remote control that may have been stowed in a rickshaw, killing 81 people.[13][14] Thirty-seven people were killed in a series of car bombings in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad; 103 nomadic herders were killed during a machete, RPG, and spear raid in South Sudan; and 36 pilgrims died in a stampede at a gathering of 30 million Hindus in Allahabad, India.[15][16][17]

[*] These two items were corrected after publication.

“Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee who competed in the 400 meters for South Africa at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, was charged with the murder of his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp.[18] Former Los Angeles policeman Christopher Dorner, who killed four people during a series of attacks on police officers and their families, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head after police fired incendiary tear-gas canisters into the cabin at Big Bear Lake where he had taken refuge. Dorner’s supporters marched in protest of the police corruption he believed had led to his dismissal and of the manhunt conducted to find him. “I really, really believe he was innocent,” said one protester. “In the firing case.”[19][20] Mississippi formally notified the U.S. government that it had ratified the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery.[21] This year’s State of the Union address, in which President Barack Obama asked Congress to draft legislation on gun control, climate change, and immigration, was found to have been written at a tenth-grade reading level. As Obama entered the Capitol to deliver the speech, a female greeter wiped from his cheek the lipstick left by another female greeter.[22][23][24] In his final State of the City address, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed that the city lessen the punishment for marijuana possession and ban the plastic-foam packaging used in to-go boxes.[25][26] Iceland was considering a ban on Internet pornography. “If we can send a man to the moon,” said an interior-ministry adviser, “we must be able to tackle porn on the Internet.”[27] France’s parliament voted to allow gay couples to marry and to adopt children.[28] The International Olympic Committee voted to eliminate wrestling from the 2020 Olympic Games, in order to make room for one of baseball and softball, karate, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, wakeboarding, or wushu. “Gays,” said a Russian wrestling coach, “will soon run the whole world.”[29][30]

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Musician Chubby Checker sued HP over a Palm OS app bearing his name that estimates penis length based on a man’s shoe size.[31] A Rhode Island mother knocked down a 12-foot snow penis built by her 16-year-old son. “It’s just a big pair of balls now,” she said.[32] A Mankato, Minnesota, woman flung a used tampon at police officers who were attempting to strip search her.[33] While celebrating a $75,000 lottery win, two brothers in Wichita, Kansas, blew up their house with butane purchased to fuel lighters for their bongs.[34] Mountain Dew announced plans to release a breakfast soda called Kickstart, and Bud Light was found to be the most popular alcoholic drink among the underage.[35][36] “Patient John,” the volunteer spokesman for the Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas, died of a heart attack he suffered outside the restaurant.[37] A falling lifeboat killed five members of a cruise ship during a safety drill in the Canary Islands, and the Carnival cruise ship Triumph was towed into harbor in Mobile, Alabama, five days after it went adrift without electricity or plumbing in the Gulf of Mexico. Guests slept on feces-soaked carpets, defecated into plastic bags, bartered diapers for cigarettes, and created a tent city on the ship’s swimming-pool decks. “The bathrobes,” tweeted @CarnivalCruise, “are complimentary.”[38][39][40][41][42] A carnival parade in Cologne displayed a float depicting Angela Merkel as a sow suckling hungry European nations.[43] Paraplegic Florida piglet Chris P. Bacon was given a custom-built wheelchair, a volunteer fire department in Orleans County, New York, received death threats for organizing a weekend “Squirrel Slam” hunting competition, and an affenpinscher “monkey dog” named Banana Joe bested a sheepdog named Swagger to win the 137th Westminster Dog Show in New York City. “A fantastic face, a great body,” said the competition’s Best in Show judge. “I’ve never had my hands on a better affenpinscher. Ever.”[44][45][46][47]


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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
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There Will Always Be Fires·

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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
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How to Start a Nuclear War·

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Illustration by Stan Fellows

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“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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