Monday, June 30, 2008

A Century of Tunguska

One hundred years ago today, something exploded over Siberia.

The weather in central Siberia on June 30, 1908, a Tuesday, was warm and mostly clear. Ten days after the summer solstice, the days are not appreciably shorter than they are on that longest day. In Siberia, that means the days are very long. North of the Arctic Circle the sun does not go down at all. Instead, it approaches the south and rolls along the horizon for a few minutes at midnight before beginning to rise again. Five degrees south of the circle, it dips just barely below the southern horizon a little before eleven and rises back above it just after one in the AM. At midnight it is still light enough to read a newspaper outdoors on a clear night. People and animals adjust to the long days by rising early and staying up late. There will be time to sleep during the long nights of winter.

At a little after seven in the morning, settlers near the north end of Lake Baikal saw something bright appear in the sky, crossing to the northwest leaving a trail behind it. As it touched the horizon, it was transformed into a column of black smoke in which flames could be seen. Soon after, they felt a thump in the ground and heard a series of bangs that they compared to artillery in the distance. Other villagers to the west of them gave similar descriptions. Later scientific expeditions would locate the ground zero of the explosion in a remote area among the tributaries of the Podkamennaya (Stony or Upper) Tunguska River. Seismic stations around the world recorded the ground movement and set the time at precisely 07:17:11 AM.

The closest people to ground zero were Evenki reindeer herders camped along the Chambe River forty kilometers away. They reported being thrown in the air by the shock, along with their tents and belongings. They saw trees broken off by the shock and the forest set on fire. Several herders were injured, but the only reported death was an old man who probably had a heart attack. One herder, Ilya Potapovich, later reported that his brother was so shocked by the explosion that he didn't speak for years after. Their herds were scattered and many reindeer perished in the fire.

The devastated forest at Tunguska photographed twenty years later.

At the Vanavara trading post, seventy kilometers from ground zero, people were knocked to the ground, with enough force to lose consciousness. Windows were broken and buildings damaged. The heat was painful, but not hot enough to start fires. Two hundred kilometers south, the ground shock and wind were strong enough to knock people and animals off their feet. Six hundred kilometers southwest, an eastbound train on the Trans-Siberian Railroad shook so hard the engineer feared the train might be derailed and brought it to a screeching halt.

When all of the reports were collected in the 1920s, it revealed that the object in the sky was visible 700 kilometers away and the explosion was heard over 1200 kilometers away.

Sibir a regional newspaper published in Irkutsk was the first to make an official notice publishing on July 2:
In the N Karelinski village (200 verst N of Kirensk) [one verst equals 1.0668 kilometers] the peasants saw to the North-West, rather high above the horizon, some strangely bright (impossible to look at) bluish-white heavenly body, which for 10 minutes moved downwards. The body appeared as a "pipe", i.e. a cylinder. The sky was cloudless, only a small dark cloud was observed in the general direction of the bright body. It was hot and dry. As the body neared the ground (forest), the bright body seemed to smudge, and then turned into a giant billow of black smoke, and a loud knocking (not thunder) was heard, as if large stones were falling, or artillery was fired. All buildings shook. At the same time the cloud began emitting flames of uncertain shapes. All villagers were stricken with panic and took to the streets, women cried, thinking it was the end of the world.

Another Siberian paper, Golos Tomska, wrote more cynically on the fourth:
The noise was considerable, but no stone fell. All the details of the fall of a meteorite here should be ascribed to the overactive imagination of impressionable people. There is no doubt that a meteorite fell, probably some distance away, but it's huge mass and so on are doubtful.

A few other local newspapers added their stories through the rest of the short Siberian summer, but by late August, when the nights were growing noticeably longer and cooler, the mysterious blast of June was forgotten amid other concerns.

The most likely path of a meteorite based on witness recollections in the 1920s.

Although the Tunguska blast did not raise any attention outside Siberia, the effects of the blast were noticed across the Northern Hemisphere. The dust from the blast was injected into the stratosphere and circled the globe creating spectacular sunsets and bright night skies for the next few days. In London, cricket games continued after midnight. In Scotland, farmers used the extrra daylight to harvest the hay crop. In the cities and countryside of Northern Europe, intelligent observers wondered about the cause of the displays. Newspapers in London, Berlin, Prague, and New York sent reporters to interview astronomers. The most common answer given was that the bright skies were probably unusual auroral displays brought on by energetic eruptions on the sun. A few experts admitted that the displays didn't show the normal characteristic sheets and scintillations of an aurora, but they didn't have a better explanation on hand. Some of the older observers, expert and amateur, came closer to the truth when they compared the skies to the displays that followed the eruption of Krakatau in 1883. The mystery was soon forgotten in the face of other news. There were crises in Central Europe to worry about and it was the regatta season.

European Russia paid even less attention to the mysteries of nature than their neighbors to the West. Ever since the disastrous war with Japan in 1904-05 the empire had been in a state of crisis. The stress of the war brought about a revolutionary situation that was only calmed by the Tsar agreeing to the formation of a parliament. Three separate elections were held during 1906-07 before a government could be formed that could work with the Tsar. Meanwhile, unrest continued in the countryside with peasants burning manor houses and the army burning peasant villages right up till the end of 1907. At the same time as the government tried to establish some kind of domestic peace, it also had to establish a safe diplomatic space in which to rebuild its military strength. Russia's diplomats tried unsuccessfully to balance between Germany and Austria on one side and Britain and France on the other without committing to either alliance. As if all of that wasn't enough, the constitutional ideas of the Revolution of 1905 appeared to have infected Russia's neighbors to the South, Turkey and Persia, adding more crises and instability for the rulers to deal with. The result was that in the cities of European Russia the ruling elites had little attention to spare for exploring Siberian mysteries. No official attention was directed into the explosion at Tunguska until after the World War, the Revolutions of 1917, and the following Civil War were over and the country had had a few years to catch its breath.

The man who brought the mystery of the Tuguska explosion to the attention of the world was Leonid Kulik. Kulik had ideal credentials for the job. Although of a bourgeois background, the son of a doctor, he had been expelled from school for pro-Bolshevik revolutionary activities. He continued his education in forestry, physics, and mathematics in the years before WWI, with occasional breaks to be arrested for continuing revolutionary activities. Working in the Urals as a forester, he had come to the attention of Vladimir Vernadsky and acquired an interest and quick education in geology. The Revolution found him in Tomsk, Siberia teaching mineralogy. He joined the Red Army and served till the end off the Civil War, when he was discharged with honor. He took a museum job in Petrograd (the less German sounding name given to St. Petersburg in 1914) studying under Evgenii Krinov, the country's leading authority on meteors. Thus he came to the problem with a broad education, influential intellectual patrons, impeccable revolutionary credentials, and a familiarity with Siberia.

In 1921 the Soviet Academy of Sciences approved an expedition to Siberia to collect information on meteors. The Purpose of the expedition was not particularly scientific. Some had the idea that utilizing the concentrated ore of iron meteorites they might jump-start the recovery of Soviet industry. No doubt the people who approved the expedition were influences by a number of discoveries of giant iron meteors in recent years. In 1894, the Arctic explorer Robert Peary located the Cape York meteorite in Greenland consisting of nearly 35 tons of almost pure iron-nickel alloy. In 1902, an American entrepreneur located the Willamette meteorite in Oregon, which weighed in at 15.5 tons. Most impressive of all, in 1920 a farmer near Grootfontein, Southwest Africa (now Namibia) found the Hoba meteorite with 66 tons of alloy. Kulik was made the head of the Siberian meteorite expedition.

As Kulik was boarding his train to the Far East one of his colleagues handed him a page torn from an old calendar that had a news article about a meteor fall in Siberia in 1908. Almost every detail of the article was wrong. It described a red glowing stone landing near the railroad and curious passengers standing around to watch it cool. However, from the date and location in the story, Kulik was able to figure out what had happened. He prepared a questionnaire about the event that he gave to people across Siberia. Comparing witness accounts he was able to calculate approximately where the streak in the sky should have touched down. Kulik had no doubt that the 1908 explosion was a meteorite.

Despite his confidence, it would take Kulik six years to convince the academy to fund another expedition. During that time he corresponded with other researchers in that part of Siberia and published his theory. S.V. Obruchev, a geologist, interviewed some of the locals in 1924. A.V. Voznesensky, former director of the Irkutsk observatory, did his own interviews and calculated the ground zero for what he also believed was a giant meteorite. He published his findings in 1925. In 1926, I.M. Suslov, an ethnologist working among the Evenki people conducted over sixty interviews and published his work. The force of this collected testimony enabled Kulik to overcome the Academy and get funds for an expedition in the spring of 1927 to ground zero. At this point, no outside had seen the damage caused by the explosion, though Suslov's witnesses described a great area where the trees no longer stood.

In February of 1927, Kulik and an assistant traveled from Leningrad (as Petrograd had been renamed) to Taishet, a station on the Trans-Siberian Railroad 900 kilometers from the believed epicenter of the Tunguska explosion. From there they traveled by horse-drawn sledge and cart to the Vanavara trading post. After recovering for a few days, Kulik began negotiating for a guide to take him to the center of the blast. The local Evenki had developed a strong aversion to the region which they believed had been cursed by Ogdy, their god of thunder. Eventually, Kulik convinced Ilya Potapovich, the brother of the herder who was probably closest to the explosion, to take him there.

After a false start, the group traveled by horse and reindeer north to the River Makirta. As soon as they crossed the river, they began to find whole stands of trees broken off and knocked over. On April 15, Kulik and his group climbed the highest hill they could find to survey the forest. From that vantage, Kulik reports that as far as he could see to the North, the forest had been leveled and burned, with all of the fallen trees pointing south. In all, 80 million trees were flattened over an area of over 2000 square kilometers. Potapovich and a second guide refused to go any further.

Kulik returned to Vanavara and hired some laborers to take him to the center of the blast area. He expected to find a large crater there, like the one that was becoming a famous attraction in Arizona. He found the exact opposite. Kulik could tell, from the direction the trees had fallen, where the approximate center was. Instead of a crater, he found a circular stand of trees still upright, but with all their branches blown off. Kulik deduced that his meteor had broken apart above the ground and the force of that shattering had blown downward, stripping the trees directly below and knocking over the trees further away. Kulik also noticed circular potholes, sometimes tens of meters across and filled with water. He decided these must be the small craters that the fragments of the meteor made. Unfortunately, the summer thaw was now well underway and the countryside was turning into a sea of mud. After taking some photographs, Kulik's group returned to Vanavara.

Back in Leningrad, Kulik's report got considerably more attention than his 1921 report had. Western scientific journals wrote him up. Observatories and scientists began combing through records from 1908 to find out how they could have missed the explosion. The mysterious bright nights of the summer of 1908 were recalled and declared solved. In London, C.J.P. Cave unveils a set of records from a device called a microbarograph. This device invented in 1903, was able to ignore normal changes in air pressure, such as storm fronts, and record tiny fluctuations in pressure. Cave shows that six of these devices recorded four waves of pressure in rapid succession exactly five hours after the explosion in Siberia.

With the whole world watching, the honor of Soviet science was at stake and the Academy quickly approved another expedition for the next year. At first the 1928 expedition didn't seem to have much hope of adding to the information gained the previous year. Kulich, three assistants, and a film maker surveyed the blast area, but the equipment they brought was not up to the task of drilling in the soggy ground or detecting buried metallic objects. When food began to run low, Kulik sent the others home.

They couldn't have arrived at a better time. Umberto Nobile's attempt to reach the North Pole by zeppelin had ended in a crash on the return leg and the crew was left stranded on the Arctic icepack. The Soviet Union dispatched a state-of-the-art icebreaker to rescue them. Day after day the world watched the dramatic rescue take place. No sooner was the drama over, than three scientists arrived from the wastes of Siberia to announce that their leader had refused to leave his work and was stranded there. They had a nice documentary film to go with their story. The press corps turned their attention ninety degrees and looked to Siberia for the next adventure.

The ethnologist I.M. Suslov, who had worked among the Evenki and knew the area, led the rescue expedition. He took along an army of reporters. When they arrived, Kulik put everyone to work digging for meteorite fragments. No one found anything. At the end of the summer, the whole group returned to Leningrad to examine their findings. Kulik and Tunguska were world famous.

There was no question of the Academy refusing a 1929 expedition. This time Kulik had an army of engineers and fifty carts of supplies. Kulik's boss at the museum, Krinov, also came along. They spent two summers and a winter making major excavations at a number of sites around ground zero. The lack of meteor fragments was causing some controversy. Arctic geologists pointed out that the pothole formations were a permafrost structure found all over the North. Krinov and Kulik got into a fight over the exact epicenter of the blast and stopped talking to one another. By the end of the summer, it looked like Tunguska research was over for a while. Kulik's health had been severely degraded by the rough trips. Russia was pulling into isolation under Stalin. The World Depression and new crises in Europe had taken over the interest of the news reading public. Finally, there was no money left for research.

Kulik managed one more expedition in 1939. By now aerial surveys had precisely mapped the blast area and a road and airstrip had been built to make travel to the site a holiday compared to his journey's of the previous decade. Kulik was planning another series of annual research trips when the war interrupted. His short 1939 trip was his last. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Kulik, who was almost sixty, joined the militia and fought in the defense of Moscow. He was wounded and captured by the Germans and died of typhus in a prison camp in April 1942. When the Soviets mapped the back of the moon, they named a crater for him.

Leonid Kulik memorial stamp issued in 1958 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Tunguska explosion. The cause of the blast was still very much a mystery when the stamp was issued.

To Kulik and many others, it was obvious from the very beginning that the Tunguska explosion was the result of some type of meteorite. However, a large portion of the world scientific community resisted the idea. The lack of a crater or fragments of the impactor were major sticking points, to be sure, but even if they had been found, many would have tried to explain them away. They just didn't like the idea of big things hitting the Earth. Their hostility came from two scientific battles fought in the early part of the nineteenth century.

The founding of the science of geology was made especially difficult because it seemed to go in the face of the Biblical narrative in Genesis. Prior to the Enlightenment, it was commonly believed in the Western world that the Earth was only a few thousand years old. The whole idea of a separate history of the Earth was meaningless, because the Earth was only a few days older than human history. The formation of the Earth was a simple matter of divine will and the structure of the Earth's surface was all conveniently explained as the scars of the Mosaic Flood. The Copernican revolution created the first cracks in this cozy view of the universe. By making the universe much bigger than the Biblical-Aristotelian worldview allowed, astronomers created a need for more time to let cosmic processes work their way out. An older universe had more time for gentle processes, like erosion, to explain the shape of an older Earth. The idea that gradualistic processes were sufficient to explain the mountains and the seas was particularly hard resisted by English speaking Protestants. In fighting to establish geology on a naturalistic basis, scientists in Britain and the United States took an equally hard line against anything that appeared miraculous or catastrophically sudden.

At the same time geologists were fighting to establish the Earth sciences on a rationalistic basis, astronomers were settling a long-standing controversy over the nature of meteors. It may come as a surprise to some to discover that the very idea of meteorites is a new one that was strongly resisted by many in the scientific community. According to the Aristotelian science that was endorsed by the Church, meteors were an atmospheric phenomenon similar to the Northern Lights. When Western thinkers began to reject the miraculous, they lumped reports of rocks falling out of a clear sky together with rains of blood or frogs as something not to be believed. The streaks of light called meteors had nothing to do with things falling from the sky.

The conversion of the scientific world to the idea that rocks really did fall out of the sky came rather quickly. Between 1794 and 1803 a number of meteor falls were well documented in Italy, England, and India. The climax was a meteor shower over L'Aigle, Normandy on April 23, 1803 that dropped over 2500 stones. So many rocks witnessed by so many people was more than could be denied.

To fit the idea of meteorites in with the non-catastrophic, or uniformatarian, view of geology a compromise was struck: it was agreed that meteors really existed, but that they were always small and insignificant as a geological process. This was easy to believe at first. When no one knew where meteors came from, it was easy to say they were by definition small, for example, they might be rocks tossed out by lunar volcanoes. A better understanding of comets and the discovery of asteroids challenged this compromise by adding big rocks in strange orbits to the prevailing model of the universe.

The nebular hypothesis of the origin of the Earth also presented a challenge. In this theory, the Earth was formed by the agglomeration of comets and asteroids in the early solar system. The uniformitarian paradigm absorbed this idea by making the age of bombardment a one-time era in the distant past. Large rocks once hit the Earth, but they don't do that anymore. All visible craters, therefore, were judged to be volcanic in origin and all large meteorites discovered, like the Willamette, Hoba, and Cape York meteorites, were judged to be very ancient, relics of the formation of the Earth. This resistance to allowing the possibility of large meteorites in modern time was mast extreme among American scientists. The Barringer Crater in Arizona was dismissed as volcanic in origin, despite a total lack of evidence, and all of the craters on the Moon were explained as ancient volcanoes.

The resistance to the idea that a large meteorite might be behind the Tunguska explosion created an opening where wild ideas were allowed to proliferate. The ideas can easily be divided into three types: natural objects falling from the sky that are natural but stranger than normal meteorites, natural causes coming up from the earth, objects of intelligent design coming from Earth or space.

The most commonly mentioned natural but strange object from space is a tiny black hole. This idea was first stated by A.A. Jackson and Michael P. Ryan in a 1973 article in journal Nature. Jackson and Ryan described a black hole with a event horizon radius less than a millimeter across. It entered the atmosphere creating a tube of superheated air that created the visible passage across the sky and the damage to the forest with no crater. The black hole itself passed at an angle through the Earth and exited in the North Atlantic. Its exit point off the western end of the Azores should have created an equally spectacular display, but none was reported.

When Kulik was still alive, a fellow Russian, Vladimir Rojansky suggested the possibility the Earth could be bombarded by small anti-matter meteors. In 1965 two American physicists, again in the pages of Nature explored the possibility of an anti-matter meteor explaining the puzzling aspects of the Tunguska blast. The authors admitted that an anti-matter meteor would erode during the entire course of its passage through our atmosphere rather than save most of its energy for blast at the end.

The idea of mirror matter, a type of matter with the particle spins reversed, was proposed in 1956 by two Chinese-American physicists. Mirror matter provides a mathematical solution to some problems of symmetry, but it should be completely undetectable. In a self-published book in 2002, Robert Foot, an Australian physicist, suggested a mirror matter asteroid exploding the upper atmosphere could have provided the energy for the Tunguska blast while leaving no trace of itself. The biggest problem with this theory is that mirror matter has never been found and isn't even widely accepted as necessary by most physicists.

In 2001, a German writer suggested leaking methane from a natural gas field might have caused the explosion. Andreii Olkhovatov of Moscow, postulates something he calls geometeors, an eruption from the Earth caused by an electrical linkage between some kind of meteorological activity and an earthquake. The key problem with all from-below theories is that they ignore the testimony of the dozens of people who saw some thing streak across the sky toward Tunguska before the explosion.

Jack Stoneley, in his 1977 book Cauldron of Hell: Tunguska brought up the possibility that the explosion was the largest incident of ball lightening ever seen, but even he wasn't that enthusiastic about the idea, only mentioning it before going on to give the most space to the idea of a spaceship crashing in Siberia. Others have developed variations on this idea comparing the collapse of the ball to a natural atomic bomb.

The most famous alternative theory is the crashing spaceship, which can incorporate anti-matter or an atomic explosion coming from the spaceship engines. Aleksandr Kazantsev, an engineer who also writes science fiction, wrote the earliest version of this scenario. In 1946, Kazantsev published a short story called "The Blast" about aliens coming to steal water from Lake Baikal whose ship malfunctions and explodes. Kazantsev was clearly influenced by descriptions of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the year before. In 1963 Kazantsev developed his idea into a book length work of non-fiction. This is a favorite theory of the UFO crowd and of science fiction fans and has received dozens, if not hundreds of treatments over the last sixty years.

Nikola Tesla: A Serbian with a death ray?

One of my favorites is what I call the oops theories. There are two of these. The first, which appeared in Russia in 1964, is that aliens on a planet orbiting the star 61 Cygni saw the explosion of Krakatau and thought we were trying to communicate with them. Their answer, sent by a super tight laser pulse, burned up a big chunk of Siberia. Messages like that are the extraterrestrial equivalents of sending e-mails written with the Cap-Lock on. The second is home grown. In this theory the brilliant physicist and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla accidentally blew up the Tunguska forest while testing a death ray at his lab at Wardenclyffe on Long Island. When he realized how dangerous it was he dismantled his lab. Of course it would have taken Tesla twenty years to realize how dangerous it was because that's when the first reports from Kulik's expeditions reached the West.

The UFO magazine Nexus published a novel explanation in their 2004 and 2005 issues. The forests at Tunguska, they tell us, are home to mysterious underground installations built by sophisticated ancients. Every few centuries these installations come to life to defend the Earth from rogue meteors and alien invasions. The 1908 blast was just the latest battle waged by these heroic machines.

In describing the Tunguska explosion, a literary tradition has been established of comparing it to a nuclear weapon and describing its power in megatons. The Tunguska blast was equal to about twenty megatons (million tons) of TNT. Hiroshima was about twenty kilotons (thousand tons), one one-thousandth the size of Tunguska. There are good reasons for this comparison. A very hot, concentrated blast, above the surface of the ground accurately describes both the Tunguska and Hiroshima explosions.

But the main reason for the comparison probably has more to do with literary sensationalism than accuracy. Atomic blasts are one of the most frightening things that the post WWII generation can imagine (after clowns). The nuclear weapon comparison allows writers to paint vivid scenarios of what would have happened if the object had detonated over a populated area. The area of blown down trees is approximately the same size as a number of major cities including Washington, DC. It is frequently pointed out that the blast was at the same latitude as the Russian capital of St. Petersburg. If the Earth had been turned four and a half hours further when it met the object, the explosion would have happened over the northern industrial suburbs of the city and burned the entire metropolitan area to the ground.

In one way, the comparison is very false. Whatever exploded at Tunguska, it was not radioactive. The heat of the blast was great enough that it emitted x-rays, elements were ionized, and strange chemical reactions occurred, but these were the result of extreme heat, not of radioactive decay or fission. The atomic comparison brings on thoughts of modern weirdness and opens the door to ideas of strange forms of matter, spaceships, or super weapons. A more natural comparison would be to rank it next to other natural disasters.

In earthquakes, a twenty-megaton explosion releases about the same energy as an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter Scale. The world sees about a twenty each year that are this strong or worse. The World Series earthquake that hit San Francisco in 1989 was in this range. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 unleashed about 1000 megatons of energy and the Alaska earthquake of 1964 unleashed about 30,000 megatons.

Even a moderate hurricane has many times more power than that. Hurricane Katrina had an energy equivalent of over 8000 megatons or 400 times the size of the Tunguska blast. There are two important differences here: size and time. A hurricane spreads that energy over several thousand square kilometers and builds gradually over hours. Tunguska spread out from a spot only a few meters across and traveled three or four times faster than the strongest hurricane.

Volcanoes make the best comparison to meteors because they come in all sizes and can leak their energy out or deliver it in an explosion. Mount St. Helens delivered about seven megatons in its May 18, 1980 eruption. Krakatau's 1883 explosion is estimated to have been about 100 megatons. The explosion that took away most of the Greek island of Thera in the seventeenth century BC was six to ten times stronger than that.

And Having Writ... by Donald R. Bensen. A humorous alternative history novel published in 1978. The story centers on the extraterrestrial crew of the spaceship that almost crashed at Tunguska. Now stranded on Earth, they do everything they can to jump start WWI in order to advance human technology to the point where they can build a new spaceship and go home. Unfortunately, their best efforts keep causing peace to break out. When this book was published, the idea of the Tunguska spaceship was so familiar to me that using it for an alternate history made perfect sense and needed no explanation.

Over the years, the wilder explanations of the cause of the Tunguska blast have ensured it a place in popular culture. It has appeared in novels by writers as diverse as Stanisław Lem (a spaceship), Spider Robinson (Tesla), Larry Niven (a black hole), and Thomas Pynchon (an Awakened Chthulu like force). It has been mentioned in television shows and movies like Stargate SG-1, Star Trek, Dr. Who, Hellboy, Ghostbusters, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and the latest Indiana Jones. Tunguska was a major plot element in two episodes of the fourth season of The X-Files. An adventure game "Secret Files: Tunguska" is published by Deep Silver. It is even now the name of an herbal energy drink.

Tunguska Blast energy drink made from the same herbs that grow in the mysterious Tunguska region.

While these ideas have kept the name Tunguska alive in the popular mind, conventional researchers have continued to visit the site and collect evidence of a more prosaic meteorite. They have gathered what most believe is convincing evidence that a large body entered the atmosphere from the southeast and exploded at an altitude of some kilometers over the ground zero stands of trees that remained vertical. The main argument among most scientists is over the nature of the meteorite, whether it was a comet, a stony asteroid, or an iron asteroid. The composition of the meteor determines the altitude and power of the blast. Computer models have shown that most of the features of the blast can be explained by an airburst, just as Kulik believed. One of the strongest supports for the comet theory is the timing of the blast. Every year, in late June and early July, the Earth passes through a meteor stream called the Beta Taurids, which are fragments of Comet Encke. The strongest evidence for a stony asteroid is fine particles of dust found embedded in tree sap from the region and dated to 1908.

The most recent revelation from the site came from a team in Italy who examined Lake Cheko eight kilometers north of ground zero. They believe a fragment of the exploding object made it to the ground and is in the bottom of the lake. They will be returning in 2009 to excavate the lake bottom and see if they can recover something that will end the debate.

Besides simply being an persistent mystery that has engaged minds for a century, Tunguska has real relevance to our lives. In 1908, the world had many places like Tunguska that were so remote a giant meteorite could strike and still go almost unnoticed by the outside world. Today, there are fewer places where that is possible. A strike like Tunguska today could have global consequences. Obviously, a strike in a populous region could kill millions, but even the most remote regions are now tied into the global economic infrastructure. Siberia is criss-crossed by oil and natural gas pipelines. Even if people and infrastructure are missed, a large strike could have temporary climactic effects resulting in major food or economic crops failing for one or more years. An increasing number of historians are beginning to believe that meteorites and volcanic eruptions explain certain plagues, famines, and even the fall of empires in the past.

The smooth survival of our civilization might depend on getting to know more about the objects with which we share our solar system. But even if we never have to face a civilization busting threat from space, the knowledge we gain from Tunguska is priceless and the story is a great yarn. Happy birthday, old rock, snowball, spaceship or whatever you were. It's been a fun century and the adventure shows no sign of stopping.

Postscript: Looks like I'm not the only one who thought to do an anniversary piece. Here is the BBC science page.

Update: I have made some minor editing corrections thanks to alert readers pointing out the need. I also added a picture of Tesla that, for some reason, didn't want to upload yesterday.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Fear of facts

Both Pam Spaulding and Ed Brayton are running a Blogger Interrupted video of a woman named Joy Atwood in Medina, Ohio saying that she thinks Obama is an "Arab" or at least would show "Arab tendencies" in the White House and that frightens her. She cites e-mails that her family and friends sent her as her source. She repeats the canard that Obama won't put his hand on his heart to say the pledge of allegiance. Tim Russo, the Blogger Interrupted interviewer, offers to send Atwood proof that Obama is a Christian who says the pledge.

I wouldn't make too much of the fact that Atwood confuses Muslim and Arab. It's a fairly common mistake in the US reflecting our widespread ignorance of the outside world and tendency to use the idea of nationalism interchangeably with citizenship, ethnicity, and religion. For example, most Americans think of Indian and Hindu as synonyms despite that fact that India is home to millions of Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, and more Muslims than Iran.

A week later, Russo returned to see how she responded to his proof. Atwood says she glanced at his e-mails, but didn't follow the links to his proof. That's just what you say, she says, I believe my sources. She still thinks Obama would show "Arab tendencies" and has a new. She has heard that he supports killing babies that are born alive if the mother wanted an abortion. Got that? She believes Obama wants to kill live birth babies. Her source is Concerned Women for America. CWA was founded in 1979by Beverly LaHaye, wife of Religious Right activist and "Left Behind" author Tim LaHaye, as a counter to the progressive National Organization of Women. CWA opposes abortion, gay rights, sex education, drug and alcohol education, Harry Potter books, and all forms feminism. They are a major player in the culture wars.

Russo asks Atwood if she would like to meet Obama and ask him about these things. She says no; she already knows enough about him. I think that was the most appalling part of either video. What she was saying in effect was that what she had heard had more credibility than any thing she might find out for herself. I've run into that attitude before. It seems to me to reflect an unhealthy lack of self-confidence, lack of curiosity, and, worst of all, submission to recognized authority. She seemed uncomfortable with the very idea of being in a position where she might have to rely on her own judgment instead of accepting "the truth" as given to her by her betters. She had been told what the truth about Obama was and quite literally didn't want to be confused by facts. Of course this kind of willing conformity to hierarchy is the hallmark of conservative psychology.

Before some conservative jumps in and says that's not true, they're an independent thinker, let me explain that last statement. This goes the heart of my own interpretive framework of American politics.

The American political spectrum is not based on coherent philosophies. There is no simple philosophical test that will tell you what the liberal and conservative positions will be on a new issue. Political liberalism and conservatism are based on membership in groups. People join the left or the right and cheer for their side. They believe what their side believes.* This doesn't mean that there isn't an underlying principle the American political spectrum.

The Rosetta stone of American politics is emotion. This is what George Lakoff is talking about when he writes about cognitive linguistics and metaphors in politics. Unfortunately, this brings me to an unfortunate problem of terminology. When I speak of liberalism and conservatism I mean two different things. Political liberalism and conservatism describes the two main teams of American politics; the left and right, the Democrats and Republicans. The people themselves who support those sides display emotional or psychological liberalism or conservatism as described by Lakoff's nuturing mother and stern father metaphors.

Liberal personalities respond to an ideal the state and society as a nurturing parent. The nurturing parent protects an essentially good child as it finds itself. The liberal personality is open to experimentation and discovery in most things and are very egalitarian in assigning value. A typical liberal anxiety is fretting over injustice and unfairness suffered by others. The downside to the liberal mind is that they often don't respect the accomplishments of predecessors and are prone to rush from one new thing to the next without much thought. Conservative personalities respond to an ideal the state and society as a stern father. The stern father knows the right way and is responsible for disciplining an essentially wild child and teaching them how to be good citizens. The conservative personality believes in a rigidly hierarchical world of value and power where everything has a proper place and rightful authority should not be challenged. A typical conservative anxiety is fretting over the loss of important values, order, and of their place in the hierarchy. The downside to the conservative mind is that they are natural born authoritarians and followers. Liberals and conservatives both believe in rights, fairness, and freedom, but they mean fundamentally different things by those words.

While the political and psychological liberalisms or conservatisms usually match up, they fail as synonyms on two counts.

First, is the political definition of positions on each side. What a side believes is based on shifting alliances between interest groups beyond the control (and out of the sight of) of most individuals. The decision makers on each side themselves possess psychological liberalism or conservatism but they must make those alliances based on principals of realpolitik and cost benefit considerations. Occasionally this leads to a side adopting a position that doesn't really fit with their underlying psychology.

In addition, the leaders tend to make partisan issues that really are not partisan. Consider the current science wars. Just a few years ago, the current wisdom was that conservatives were more friendly to science than liberals, who were supposed to be more friendly to unscientific alternative ways of thought. Now, because the religious right opposes stem cell research and teaching evolution and because corporate interests find the conclusions of climate research threatening to their bottom lines, the right has made science a partisan issue. When Ben Stein declares "science kills people" he speaking for the entire right. Hostility to science has suddenly become an article of faith on the right even though science as a whole is not intrinsically liberal or conservative.

Second, is the way in which people choose their side. People choose their group in late adolescence based on social ties. They stick with the side their parents belonged to, to one their friends belong to, or to the side of the social group they aspire to join. This selection process is not completely irrational or opportunistic. It is based primarily on a certain emotional comfort with a group and its language. But because other considerations come in when choosing a side with which to associate, it's possible for a person with an essentially conservative personality to join the liberal side and vice versa.

Sometimes these people can live their whole lives without that contradiction causing a crisis for them. Think of all the authoritarians who took over liberal movements during the twentieth century. In others the contradiction is brought to a head by major events and they suddenly switch sides. Think of the political liberals who discovered their inner conservative following 9/11.

This is what I mean when I say Joy Atwood exhibits a typical conservative mind. She was presented with an opportunity to explore and discover, but turned it down and retired behind a shield of comfortable authority. Atwood didn't even want to talk to Obama because he might challenge what she already knew, from her authorities, to be true. I can't imagine a liberal who would turn down a chance to meet McCain and have a look for themselves. They might not go out of their way to do it, but if someone indicated that they could arrange an intimate meeting, what liberal would say no thanks?

This is just a fragment of my whole theory of understanding American politics. Maybe I'll get some more chunks of it written up some day.

* Naturally, when I say people don't think much before deciding what they believe I make exception for you and me, dear reader. We are paragons of carefully considered, rational thought and philosophical consistency in all that we do and espouse. Though I do occasionally have my doubts about you.

Self-loathing is a terrible thing

But in their case I can understand it. We loath them, too.
On Monday on FOX News Dino Rossi was caught trying to trick Washington's voters. You may have heard that Rossi and 27 other Republican candidates in our state will not allow the word "Republican" to appear next to their name on the ballot.

Thanks to the new Top Two primary, candidates can choose what party label they want on the ballot in November. As we reported on June 11th, Dino Rossi will have "Prefers G.O.P. party" next to his name, which is clearly a scheme to avoid having the word "Republican" next to his name.

Or as one of their candidates admits in this newscast:

"There's 30 percent of the people in this state that would not vote for a Republican no matter what, and we want to get around that..."

Rossi is a tool of the construction industry whose main political objective is to get rid of all of those pesky zoning and environmental laws that are preventing his friends from paving over the state. The fact that he wants to be identified as a member of the "Grand Old Party Party" is indicative of his intelligence.

Firefox 3.0 sucks

Like many people I ran out and upgraded to the latest version of the Firefox browser the other day. Now I'm ready to downgrade to the old version. Firefox 3.0 manages to suck up all of my processing power and lock up just trying to open a simple web page (the same pages that version two was opening with no problem last week). I'm willing to give it one more chance if anyone knows of some setting tweaks that can stop it from being such a hog.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Josh and Matt are both right

Karl Rove has issued his latest directive concerning messaging on Barack Obama.
Even if you never met him, you know this guy. He's the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by.

Josh Marshall detects a hidden racial message; Rove is implying that Obama is getting uppity. Matt Yglesias isn't so sure, but he sees a big honking class faux pas.
How many Americans have had the experience of being at a country club and watching some dude with a beautiful date hold a martini and smoke a cigarette? Certainly I haven't. Rove assumes that "you know this guy" but unless "you" are a wealthy person from the past, you probably don't know a guy like that.

Putting Obama in a country club was was meant to imply that Obama is an elite (eek), but assuming we know the types who hang out at country clubs much more firmly lands Rove in the dreaded elites than it does Obama. But then, we all know Rove's type. He's the pathetic guy who is still trying to get back at the kids in high school who wouldn't him join their clique. You don't have to be uppity or an elite to know--and avoid--that guy.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Forward into the past

What century is this?
Robert Hurt went to Washington and didn't like what he saw – nudity in the nation's capital.
"Nude women, sculptured women," he told the state Republican platform committee, which sat in rapt attention.

Of all the evils in Washington that the Texas GOP took aim at this week, removing art with naked people from public view was high on the list for Mr. Hurt, a delegate from Kerrville.


He offered detail: On Arlington Memorial Bridge overlooking the famed national cemetery, "there are two Lady Godivas, two women on horses with no shirt on and long hair."

Actually, they are classical sculptures about war – one called Valor, depicting a male equestrian and a female with a shield, and Sacrifice, a female accompanying the rider Mars.

The Texas Republicans are alarmed that the Florida and Louisiana Republicans has been giving them a run for their money as the laughing stock of the nation, so they have struck back with a party platform more suited to the 1840's Republic of Texas than to the the twenty-first century State of Texas. The Texas Republicans are in favor of returning mandatory prayer to public schools, getting out of the United Nations, teaching intelligent design in science classes, repealing of the minimum wage, and declaring illegal immigrants criminals. They want to outlaw abortion with no exceptions for rape, incest, or the health of the mother. They are for continuing the Iraq War till "victory" and denounce affirmative action as "racism disguised as social value."

America, this is the vanguard of the modern Republican Party. This is what they are offering.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Hope never dies for extremists

The extreme political Religious Right hasn't given up hope of getting something out of this election.
The Christian Anti-Defamation Commission, an organization run by a former staffer of the late Rev. D. James Kennedy, is calling on conservative Christians to sign a petition seeking a "True Christian" vice president.

Gary Cass, who used to lead the Center for Reclaiming America at Coral Ridge Ministries in Florida, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that he doesn't think either Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain meets his standards for being such a Christian.

"So the best we're going to get out of this election cycle is an evangelical Christian running for vice president," he said.

The group isn't suggesting names but is citing criteria for a perfect candidate, including that it be someone who is against abortion and for defining marriage as "a union between one man and one woman." It plans to send the petition to the presidential candidates.

By "True Christian" they, of course, mean someone who agrees with their particular sectarian-political position, which is a minority position among American Christians. To them, most American Christians don't qualify as true Christians.

Considering these guys are never, ever going to vote for a Democrat, the real point of the petition is to pressure McCain to allow them to name his VP in return for them not staying home in November. More likely, they know McCain will lose and this is just them positioning themselves to argue that it was their lack of support that lost him the election and thus blackmail the Republican Party to cave into the Religious Right's demands even more in the future than it has in the past. The whole business of saying they plan to send their petition to both parties is just cover for tax purposes.

Meanwhile, in the big sky state

I meant to write about this when I saw it a few days ago. My parents, all of their siblings, one of my sisters, and most of my cousins were all born in Montana and I spent a great deal of my childhood visiting relatives or camping there. I think of it as one of my home states and occasionally check out the local news and politics there. Naturally, I got quite a kick out of this:
Meet Bob Kelleher, the Republican nominee against Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) this year.

He is an 85-year-old attorney with some downright unconventional views. He believes the American system of representative government should be replaced by a parliamentary system. He calls for socialized medicine, advocates nationalizing the country’s oil and gas industries and believes taxes should be raised significantly to eradicate poverty.

It’s not the standard GOP platform, but nevertheless Kelleher defeated four other candidates in the primary to claim the Republican nomination.

Running to the left of the Democrats, it's an interesting strategy and not one that would have occurred to me, but, since Montana was home to some of the prairie populists and to some of the New Deal progressives, I wouldn't entirely rule it out as a sign of things to come. After all, the endless culture war and anti-environmentalism that the Republicans have offered western states hasn't exactly brought us jobs, respect, and prosperity.

This might be confusing to some people outside the United States. Over at WikiTalk, Davepl, a Canadian, asked:
I'm not up to speed on US politics, but isn't there any kind of requirement that a party candidate adhere somewhat to the party platform?

I'm also confused how he can be the Republican nominee if the party "wants nothing to do with him". Would you not have to be a -member- of the party, and why would they be obligated to take him?

The short answer to both questions is "no." Though every state is different, the generic version looks something like this. To run for office, all that is required is that the prospective candidate pay a filing fee and submit a petition signed by valid voters. Federal law requires the fee to be low so that our democracy be open to everyone. The petition requirements vary widely, in some states it can be a considerable barrier, for example, requiring the prospective candidate to match a number equal to ten percent of the votes cast for that office in the last election and do it in every county. In other states, its a nominal requirement, 100 voters from anywhere in the state.

The federal Constitution makes no allowance for parties and was written as if every person running for office was an independent white, male landowner. Amendments allowing the landless, nonwhites, and women into politics continued the fiction of partiless politics. The law is different that the Constitution. Our laws were written by politicians from the two major parties and have institutionalized a considerable advantage for those parties. When a prospective candidate applies to run, most states require the candidate to check a box associating his or herself with a party. While the laws are good at keeping independents and new parties off the ballot, they do not allow the parties to control who uses their name. The parties generally have no control over who signs up as a candidate under their label. I'm not sure what the historical development behind that loophole is.

The result is that any idiot can run under any party. While novelty candidates are usually outspent by the parties' preferred standard bearers and filtered out in the primaries, occasionally the party fails to recruit a strong candidate and the novelty candidate goes on to represent the part in November. The most famous case in recent years of a Party fighting to disassociate itself from its standard bearer happened in 1991 when David Duke, a neo-Nazi and former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, became the Republican candidate for governor of Louisiana.

Ironically, the one method by which the parties can exercise a degree of control is through the party caucus system, and that is under fire this year as too "elitist."

Snappy answers to offensive questions

At this weekend’s Texas Republican convention a booth hosted by Republicanmarket sold buttons asking, “If Obama Is President…Will We Still Call It The White House?”

Yes, but we won't call it the Whitie House.

Republicanmarket's slogan is: "Patriotic and Republican Products at Republican Market." They also sell buttons with messages like "There Are Americans And There Are Liberals" or a picture of Hillary Clinton with the phrase: “Life’s A Bitch, Don’t Vote For One.” What a class act.

Cousin Bob

When I first read the Play MacBeth I was struck by the horror of one lesser known line. At the end of Act five, MacBeth is besieged in Dunsinane Castle by the forces of MacDuff. As he calls out orders for the doomed defense of his monarchy, he hears the cry of mourning women. He turns to a seyton and angrily asks what all the noise is about. The seyton tells him that Lady MacBeth, insane since the beginning of Act five, has died. MacBeth muses, "She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word." It is a horrifying sentiment that demonstrates the depths to which MacBeth had fallen during the course of the drama. At the beginning of the play he was so passionately in love with and devoted to his wife that he would commit any crime to earn her approval. By the end, his fates have fallen so far that all he has to say about her death is that it comes at an inconvenient moment.

Those lines lead into the tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow soliloquy, one of the most famous in the entire Shakespeare canon; perhaps its not surprising that they have been eclipsed. But they have meaning for me. I spent three days last week watching one of my favorite cousins die. Most of my cousins are quite a bit older than I am and were gone from home when I was growing up. But Bob was just ten years older and lived in the same town as I did during my childhood. When I was a little kid, he was a cool high school guy who paid attention to me and gave me his old Mad Magazines. He never married. He stayed around his mother and aunts and kept an eye on them.

When my father retired, he bought a piece of land in the country and split it with his sister Norma, Bob's mother. They built two houses there and moved in next door to each other. Bob could have gone off to live his own life then, but he didn't. He found a job in the nearest town and moved so he could be there for them. Because he lived so close, he was there for all the holidays and family events. Clever Wife got to know him well and love him during our visits.

At first, my parents and Aunt were in good enough health that they didn't place many demands on Bob. But that changed. My Dad died seven years ago. Bob took over plowing the road and doing heavy lifting for Mom. Aunt Norma had a heart attack the same year Dad died. Bob moved in with her to take care of her. Mom was diagnosed with cancer and has maintenance chemotherapy. Bob began driving her to the doctor toward the end of each chemo regime when she felt weakest.

Aunt Norma died last year. By then Bob had also been diagnosed with his own cancer, lymphoma, and given a year to live. His greatest fear was that his mother would outlive him. Aunt Norma had already outlived all of her other sons; Bob didn't want to subject her to any more tragedy. He didn't. He outlived his mother by ten months.

Mom called last Monday to say Bob was fading fast. Clever Wife and I dropped everything and rushed down to where they live. Bob was at home with hospice care and the same nurse who took care of his mother was caring for him. He was conscious and recognized us when we arrived. We sat with him a while that day. When we checked in the evening, he was asleep. The next day we spent several hours sitting with him, but he never woke up. He slipped away on the third day. Clever Wife was at his side, holding his hand. I was fixing Mom a snack after taking her to the clinic for radiation.

There was little to do after that. Bob had arranged everything in advance. He had a surveyor mark the property line between Aunt Norma and Mom's houses. He sent a few mementos to his nieces and nephew. After his Mom died and before his own health failed, he traveled around and visited all his old friends. He made Mom a co-signer on his bank accounts and post office box. He made my sister his executor and gave her power of attorney while he was alive. He even arranged for the biker next door to plow the road up to Mom's next winter. We made a few phone calls and the rest was automatic. He died like he lived, gruffly practical and surprisingly considerate.

Bob did what he could to make things run smoothly after he was gone, but he couldn't do everything. He couldn't find another Bob to take his place in my mother's life. Mom lives in the country, five miles from the nearest, very small, town. She isn't ready to leave the house that Dad and Bob built for her. To quote Shakespeare again, there's the rub. As the child who lives closest to her, and the only one without a real career, it makes sense for me to take the most responsibility for making it possible for her to stay there if that's what she wants. That will probably mean a big disruption in my life. I already drive across the state every third week or so, now I'll need to do even more. She has friends and neighbors who spend time with her and keep an eye on her. She has more of a social life than I do. But she needs someone closer, someone she can call on every day.

As I said at the beginning, when I first read MacBeth, I was horrified at the thought of personal tragedy being contaminated by crass practical concerns. Like Kohelet, the old preacher of Ecclesiastes taught, I believe there should be a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to mourn and a time to plan. I don't want my final memories of Bob to be of how his death inconvenienced me. Unfortunately, life isn't that neat. The times for our purposes come in a jumbled mess. We do what we can to sort them out and make some sort of satisfying sense out of it. That's all we can do.

I'll have a little breathing time before the crazies hit. Mom is going to spend a few weeks with my sisters in Alaska. Who knows what will happen after that. Till then, I'll say my good-byes to Bob, the cool big kid who shared his Mad Magazines.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

World ends Thursday

According to the House of Yahweh in Abiline, TX, the world will be destroyed in a nuclear holocaust on Thursday and only members of their church will survive. To join the church, you have to change your last name to Hawkins and live in the church compound. Ed Brayton points out that it is a bad idea to join any church that meets in a compound. That sounds like a good policy to me. Just to be on the safe side, cancel your plans for the weekend and have a barbeque tonight. Everyone is excused from their diet for one day only.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Giving a god the business

The Sardar Bhagat Singh College, a business school in Lucknow, India, has named Lord Hanuman, the popular monkey god as its new chairman.
Lord Hanuman ... has an air conditioned chamber that is equipped with plush furniture, including a swivel chair that has a framed photo of Lord Hanuman on it, and a computer.

"Whenever, there is a problem with any decision, we simply place the file on Hanuman ji's table and leave it there for some time. The decision becomes easy and the hurdles are also removed," says Vivek Tangri. The college management now plans to build a temple for Lord Hanuman on the campus and chairman's chamber will then be shifted to the sanctum sanctorum of the temple.

The students at the institute, meanwhile, are thrilled with Lord Hanuman as their chairman. "The institute is now like a temple and we need not visit Hanuman temples in the city. When we are in classes, we feel that we have the blessings of Lord Hanuman all the time. Our careers will now be taken care of by him," says Gaurav Kapoor, a first year student.

I think a lot of people will file this under "wacky superstitious foreigners," but they should pause before feeling too superior. In 2006 the far right Law and Justice Party and the League of Polish Families introduced a bill in the Polish parliament to turn the country back into a monarchy with Jesus Christ as the king. Not good enough? Even though they're white and Christian, to many Poland is far enough away that they can still be dismissed as wacky superstitious foreigners too. A lot of American evangelicals would have loved to have had the political pull to do that in the US. Google the phrase, "We have no king but King Jesus." It's a favorite of he American religious right. In this country we have a political faction that believes we should be ruled by laws supposed given by a sky god to a tribe of desert nomads three thousand years ago. They might not give their god an air conditioned office, but aside from hat are they really that different?

Friday, June 06, 2008

Oil prices

Oil jumped to a new high today on fears of war with Iran and general jitteriness. Blah, blah, blah. A new record. Blah, blah, blah.

The Associated Press phrase it this way:
Oil prices have shot up more than $10 to a new record above $138 a barrel after a Morgan Stanley analyst predicted prices could hit $150 by the Fourth of July. Traders were also rattled by rising tensions in the Middle East.

Prices went up on the news that prices were going to go up. I'm reading that to mean market speculators drove the price up. A few days back, George Soros warned of a market bubble. This means three factors are driving up the price of crude. China and India are bidding against us for a limited amount of production, the dollar has plunged on the international markets and doesn't buy as much, and speculators are rushing to get in on what appears to be an easy investment. Does anyone have a feeling for how much each of those factors contributes to the price? If the speculation bubble burst, would the price of gas at the pump drop enough for people return to their old habits and go buy a new Hummer? As is, the silver lining to this all is that people are finally taking energy serious and making changes in their consuming habits for the first time in a generation.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Passive aggressive resistance

P-Zed points us to this story from the Philadelphia Inquirer. A local business man and atheist has put up a billboard for the local rationalist community. It reads: "Don't believe in God? You are not alone." Steve Rade wanted to start a group for atheists in his area to get together with like minds. When he looked into it, he found that there were several atheist, skeptic, and humanist groups in the region, but that they had little contact with one another. He brought their leaders together and proposed forming an umbrella group called the Greater Philadelphia Coalition of Reason. He also offered to bankroll a director and put up the sign for a recruiting drive.

What I find unusual about the story is the angle the writer took. The story is about Rade and how he came to in this position as a leading light of the local rationalist community. The billboard is only mentioned as a hook to set up the question, what sort of person would put up a sign like that? The short profile of Rade is informative and fairly neutral in tone. Ninety percent of the newspapers and virtually all of the television stations would play the story as one of controversy. You know the type: "Local churches offended by billboard. Film at eleven." Yet the writer not only took a different tack, he avoided the controversy angle altogether. There are no quotes from local pastors or startled drivers con or pro. He even avoids mentioning the controversy where it might have fit into the story. For example, Rade mentions how many phone calls the billboard has generated for the group; that would have been a natural place to mention haw many were positive and how many negative. But the writer, David O'Reilly by name, avoided the easy story and stuck to talking about Rade.

This wasn't good enough for someone in the office. Like many news outlets, the Philadelphia Inquirer wants its website to be an interactive experience. O'Reilly's story is presented with an instant poll and blog-style comments. Whoever set those up wanted to see the controversy angle covered and set up the reader participation to invite the believers to air their wounded feelings.

The poll asks "Do you believe in God?"* The vast majority of Americans believe in some form of deity. That's not news. It's also not especially relevant to the article. Relevant would be a question phrased to tease out interest in Rade and his group, such as "Would you attend the meeting of an atheists' group?" or "Do you know any atheists?" The do you believe in God question adds nothing to the story except to allow the uncomfortable majority to reassure themselves that their numbers are still unassailable enough that the Rades of the world pose no threat to them. Giving comfort to the powerful is a contemptible way for a newspaper to behave.

The comment board is even more obviously slanted toward controversy and bringing out those opposed to Rade and his group. The link reads: "Your thoughts: Does the billboard bother you?" It's not just set up to provoke controversy, it is clearly encouraging those offended to use the comments to air their feelings of grievance.

It is possible that these sidebars are nothing more than the work of an unimaginative low level editor or webmaster with no ax to grind. But, given the obvious slant, I'm more inclined to see it as a passive aggressive attempt to undermine the message of the article--that atheists are normal people--by encouraging outrage and providing a rallying forum for those hostile to that message of tolerance. But whether it was the result of hostility or incompetence, it is bad journalism.

* The Pharyanguloid hordes are swamping the poll. It was running two to one against God when I read the article.

Consumer complaints

I drive across the state at least once a month to check on my mother. This gives me a chance to check out the gas prices in a large number of markets. The price has gone up nine or ten cents over the last week and is now over four dollars in every part of Washington state that I visit. The cheapest station in Seattle managed to keep its lowest octane fuel at 3.99 for a while, but even they finally gave in. Diesel is over five in some places I visit. How are things where you live?

Monday, June 02, 2008

It does explain a lot about him

Speaking before the National Press Club today, Dick Cheney mentioned some of the revelations that his wife discovered when researching his family tree. Earlier press reports covered the fact that Cheney and Obama are distantly related. Today he revealed the fact that he's a Cheney on both sides of his family. "And we don't even live in West Virginia," he quipped. The West Virginians in the audience did not find his mot very bon. "This is exactly the type of stereotyping that we don't need from our elected officials," said Republican congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat was not amused: "The Vice President should be more careful about cheap shots aimed at the very people who elected him." Neither was Governor Joe Manchin: "I truly cannot believe that any vice president of the United States, regardless of their political affiliation, would make such a derogatory statement about my state or any state for that matter." Nick Rahall, a 16-term Democratic congressman added. "We may owe the vice president a debt of gratitude for yet another great West Virginia slogan: Dick Cheney is not from here."

At least he didn't call them bitter. That would have been elitist.