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Friday, March 18, 2011

The way we think about current events now

In the brave new world we live in, your day starts in the usual way. You don't read newspapers anymore; you haven't in years. Lately you haven't even been checking newspapers' websites, unless you're following a link to some article or another, a link posted by someone you know, where "know" is defined as -- no, not in the biblical sense, you smart-ass -- "someone you follow on some social networking site." It feels a little lazy, getting all your news preselected by your friends in the computer. But, well, life is short, and there is an infinite amount of crap out there, and everything is a little easier if you have some way to filter out the vast bulk of it. Your filter is "People Who Share Your Interests Think It's Interesting." Whatever. It works.

So your day starts, and you're on your social networking site of choice, reading short bursts of language about unimaginable suffering or malfeasance in places where you've never been, or places that you know well. Someone links to something. Say, for example, this: US Nuke Plants Ranked By Quake Risk. You click on it, and are horrified to see that the people you love best in the world live within a 150-mile radius of the three nuclear plants ranked to be at highest risk. You look at the list over and over again, gripping your coffee cup a little tighter and keeping half an eye on the tab that's still open to your social networking site of choice, because you're hoping that someone you know will say something that will distract you from what you're looking at, perhaps with photos of kittens? You look again at the tables, thinking there must be some mistake. You live in the Northeast, for pity's sake. This is not the San Andreas. But there it is, anyway. There you are -- you and everyone you love.

You read again, more carefully. The article ranks nuclear plants by their "risk of suffering core damage in an earthquake." Number 2, with a risk of 1 in 14,493, is in your state. You've been to that town; you suppose most everyone around here has. Your children go to that town on field trips. The nuclear power plant is not on their agenda when they go. You didn't even know the plant was there until last week, but since then you've read somewhere that the plant shares a design with the nuclear plants in Fukushima. You put that information together with the earthquake risk list, and have a sudden, dizzying sense that not very much separates you from the people you've been reading about, that your possibilities now are not so very different from what theirs must have looked like two weeks (a lifetime) ago. Who knows what happens next? You imagine any combination of natural disasters washing over the shores of that town, and you picture the roads you'd be taking to flee the catastrophes that followed.

Before you get too involved in your useless catastrophizing, you pull yourself together long enough to remind yourself sternly that you don't know enough to judge whether or not this article is meaningful or even accurate. Lord knows it's been a long time since you took it for granted that anything you read or saw in any media was accurate. And then there's the issue of the accuracy of your own memory. Pilgrim shares the same design as Fukushima? Are you sure? Where did you read that? You can't remember, though it was only a day or two ago -- but you read so many things, click, click -- how can you possibly remember? But it doesn't matter: you Google, and are relieved to see that someone has already updated the plant's Wikipedia page with the same information, so you know that you are remembering what you read accurately, even if you can't for the life of you remember where you read it.

Well, you think. Now that the design similarity is known, someone must be asking the hard questions, right? You click on another Googled link, this one to a local television station's written report. "The disaster in Japan is raising safety concerns at home. Officials at the nuclear plant in Plymouth and other emergency responders are now taking a closer look at their own safety measures," you read. You feel reassured. Until you read further. "Plymouth isn’t on a fault line and tsunamis aren’t a concern. Still, the plant is built to withstand a 6.0 earthquake and a total power blackout."

6.0 earthquake? Your brain is a whirl of barely remembered information, but it is not for nothing that you own a copy of this book. Googling confirms what you think you might remember once reading: The Great Earthquake of 1755. Was that more than a 6.0? You would like an answer on this point, but of course anyone who tries to give you a definitive answer is only guessing. You know better than to trust Wikipedia when it tells you the 1755 earthquake was a 6.0-6.3, but your comforting skepticism takes a severe hit when you see that the estimate is sourced to an article published by the Massachusetts Historical Society, authored by the director of the Weston Observatory. Which is the chief seismic monitoring station in New England.

You've drained your coffee by now, and there are 37 unread updates on your social networking site of choice. But there's nothing you need to respond to immediately, and the child who's home with the flu is reading quietly in the other room. You Google the Weston Observatory in the hopes of finding something there that will make you stop hyperventilating quietly into your empty coffee cup. Well, here's a nice map of seismic activity in New England from 1975-2010. You note with some relief that the few green squares marking earthquakes of greater than 5.0 in magnitude are all at some distance from the Pilgrim nuclear station.

But there's still that nagging worry, because how many times have you read recently about regions that are "at risk" for severe earthquakes because they are overdue for one by X hundreds of years? 1755 isn't a long time ago, geologically speaking. Are we so sure that we're not also overdue for something? You contemplate reaching for an old geology textbook, or doing some more Googling. But you're tired, and you read this piece after the Bar Harbor earthquake, so you already know that the short answer would be, "We don't really know."

You think also of the articles you've been seeing linked around (like here) that climate change and melting glaciers may lead to more severe earthquakes. Journalists are writing those climate change/earthquake articles, and you know better than to assume that something on a non-specialist site with a couple of quotes from some scientist somewhere is worth losing sleep over. But you wish you could find something, somewhere, that would help you decide how much credence to give the theory.

By now you've got so many browser tabs open that you can't even see the one still open to the social networking site. You think longingly of more coffee, and also of someone with the time and focus and expertise to pull all of this together in such a way that you can understand it and feel reassured by your understanding, if not by your relative risk. You hum quietly to yourself, noting that there is simply no way that "John McPhee" has enough syllables to replace "Joe DiMaggio" in a song, even if you are turning your lonely eyes to him.

Twenty-six open tabs. You'll close them all soon; you'll bring the coffee cup to the sink, check on the sick child, start some laundry. What does it matter if you understand anything, anyway? You remember reading this and thinking, "The BP disaster didn't change the way anything got done. What happens in Fukushima won't change the way anything gets done here, either." Earthquakes, tsunamis. Things fall apart, and government exists chiefly to ensure that someone makes a profit from the entropy. You think about Category 5 hurricanes, and about how Republicans won't even allow that climate change exists, let alone entertain ideas about how to mitigate or plan for its likely scenarios. You think of the photo that made you close yesterday's tabs, the one of the Japanese woman weeping, clutching a hand sticking out of rubble -- weeping while she holds her dead mother's hand. You wonder how fast you could run, carrying a sick child who weighs half as much as you do. Not faster than water can flow. Not faster than the earth can shake. Not faster than radiation can fall. You close all the tabs now. It is late; it is suddenly very late. And nothing you know or see or read is going to make any difference at all.


Blogger Kathy Rogers said...

It is nearly impossible to resist the temptation to just put on blinkers and ear plugs and stumble forward with your one and only personal life. These are strange days.

Nice to see you here.

11:26 AM, March 18, 2011  
Anonymous Elizabeth said...


I've been obsessively opening tabs myself this week, although not on that particular subject.

All I can say is that is that in 1755 they knew that life was random and unpredictable and that kids died young and women died in childbirth and they said it was God's will. We've gotten rid of some risks and created a bunch of new ones but we're always going to be kidding ourselves if we think that we have eliminated all risk. And I don't think it's God's will, but we have to stumble on anyway.

That doesn't mean what we do doesn't matter -- yes, thousands of people died in Japan, but it would have been hundreds of thousands if they hadn't built Tokyo to withstand an earthquake, and trained people that when they see the water receding they should run like hell for high ground.

So we do what we can, knowing it's not enough, but hoping that we'll get by anyway.

I miss you.

11:33 AM, March 18, 2011  
Anonymous Elizabeth said...

And "You hum quietly to yourself, noting that there is simply no way that "John McPhee" has enough syllables to replace "Joe DiMaggio" in a song, even if you are turning your lonely eyes to him." cracked me up.

11:34 AM, March 18, 2011  
OpenID chichimama.com said...

So I opened the link (because that is totally how I get my news these days), and started hyperventilating. Had totally forgot about Indian Point. And then I walked quickly away from the computer and had a cupcake. Then returned to the computer and started figuring out evacuation routes that could get me to Maine while staying 50 miles away from IP. And realized that I would have to flee to the inlaws in FL. Which had me hyperventilating again. But I was out of cupcakes. So now I am going to start some laundry. And hum a little. Hey hey hey...

12:48 PM, March 18, 2011  
Blogger Suniverse said...

I try not to think about the Fermi plant in MI, or the plant two hours away in Sandusky, or the fact that my aunt's husband died from horrific cancers after being an engineer at Fermi for a number of years.

This is why I like to read lighthearted fiction and watch silly movies.

Reality is too horrible for me.

2:02 PM, March 18, 2011  
Blogger Leslie M-B said...

Oh, Phantom. I'm so sorry you've had to process all this so suddenly.

Maybe those of us raised in coastal California are a little more carefree because we figure we're doomed to experience a natural disaster or social/cultural cataclysm eventually, so we enjoy the sunshine and fresh produce while we can. (BTW, your blog post does highlight for me finally that yes, there are benefits to living in Boise--as long as there isn't any volcanic activity. Idaho makes reactors and then ships 'em all out of state.)

I don't know if it will be any consolation, but over the long term in California's earthquake country, things have become safer--because of what folks learn from quakes in California and elsewhere. And I'm hoping--idiocies from Rand Paul et. al aside--that these disasters in Japan will over the long term nudge people in a safer direction as well.

5:04 PM, March 18, 2011  
Blogger Phantom Scribbler said...

Snort. Yeah, in New England we don't have so much of this "sunshine" and "fresh produce" of which you speak, so we like to console ourselves about how rarely life-threatening natural disasters strike.

But my despair is ultimately all about the Rand Paul idiocies, and Wisconsin/Michigan/Ohio/etc., and this and also this bit there at the end about how the company is going to try to prevent the legislature from being able to vote on its permitting process. People who are aggressively detached from reality are in charge, and the only thing they value is how much money they and their cronies can make. To them, disasters aren't something to avoid. They don't care if people get hurt as long as their profits are protected, and our government is unwilling or incapable of doing anything besides protecting those profits. So what does it matter what the facts are and what we know? As long as the people in power don't give a shit about the general welfare of us all, nothing is going to change.

6:01 PM, March 18, 2011  
Blogger Songbird said...

There's plenty of scary crap in the ground in Idaho, because they didn't always know what they were doing with it.
Phantom, as always, you take what I've been thinking simultaneously ten levels higher and deeper.

6:57 PM, March 18, 2011  
Anonymous Kristen said...

Here in Wisconsin, we are running around proclaiming "end times" and drinking a lot. (yes, even the atheists and teetotalers.) I suppose one could argue that is not much different from what we normally do in early March...but things, they are not good here in the Midwest. Not good at all.

My dad (who does earthquake/hurricane disaster response for his career) keeps calling to tell me that we are also about 200 years over-due for a big one on the new Madrid seismic zone. I put my fingers in my ears and sing "la-la-la I can't hear you." The scenes from Japan - I can hardly look at them. So so so tragic.

But then I see this sign, discarded down by the Capitol here in Madison:

and I wake up to face one more day. one hope at a time.

10:16 PM, March 18, 2011  
Blogger rachel said...

Okay, that Rand Paul thing is Fucked. Up. Not that I'm exactly surprised, considering the dude himself (that's my home state, yee-haw!). But the Department of Energy? Abolish that, you abolish most physics funding, across the boards, I kid you not.

11:45 PM, March 18, 2011  
Blogger Magpie said...

Yeah. Indian Point. 12.5 miles from my house, thank you very much. We had to sign a permission slip to allow the school to administer KI when we enrolled the girl in kindergarten. Pissed me off. Will re-read your post with a quiet house and a cup of coffee and the will to click on all those links.

5:04 PM, March 19, 2011  
Blogger Neil said...

While I may not have been as attuned to this particular issue as you have been, you have pretty much captured by daily news-gathering approach.

5:14 PM, March 19, 2011  
Blogger Phantom Scribbler said...

Glad it's not just me, Neil.

Magpie, wow. See, that's my anxiety right there. I couldn't sign one of those permission slips. My maternal grandmother died of an allergic reaction to what was almost certainly an iodine-based dye. A nuclear emergency would be a really, really bad time to discover that the kids (or I) have inherited that allergy, you know?

On the plus side, I suppose Fukushima means I'll no longer look like a completely paranoid raving lunatic if I ask the kids' doctor if it's possible to evaluate them for an iodine allergy. Just a partially paranoid raving lunatic. Progress!

5:32 PM, March 19, 2011  
Blogger kathy a. said...

oh, phantom. the frenetic local-centric worst-case driven news has driven me completely nuts.

i'm in earthquake country on the west coast, and we just visited japan last year when our daughter was there.

anyway, it is hard to sort the real news out of the huge overwhelming drama-driven amount of crap. one useful source is this, recent feeds of english-language japanese news: http://jibtv.com/program/?page=0 the earthquake and tsunami are really the big news. and also, al jazeera has a live blog daily, gathering what seems like more real news: http://blogs.aljazeera.net/live/asia/disaster-japan-live-blog-march-20

6:48 PM, March 19, 2011  
Blogger kathy a. said...

here is the al jazeera daily blog, aggregating news. and this is the jibtv feed of english-language japanese news.

7:01 PM, March 19, 2011  
Blogger kathy a. said...

rand paul etc.? the tsunami warning center is also set to be defunded, good timing there, too. i don't think i'd go so far as to call them "in charge." they may think so, but i think there are still some grownups around.

like including us.

9:05 PM, March 19, 2011  
OpenID lifeineden said...

wow, this was so well done. Magpie pointed me here -- ironically on a social networking site.

10:28 PM, March 19, 2011  
Blogger slouchy said...

yes. yes. yes.

9:01 AM, March 20, 2011  
Blogger liz said...

You have totally described the way I get news now, especially since the radio in my car is busted so NPR is out, and the workplace just has Faux News on all the time.

7:52 PM, March 20, 2011  
Blogger Phantom Scribbler said...

Thank you, lifeineden.

For whatever it's worth, the Boston Globe today ran an article that at least mentioned the 1755 earthquake. Though not the question of how our friendly neighborhood nuclear plant would do if we got another one.

8:41 PM, March 20, 2011  
Anonymous DaniGirl said...

Yeah. Sigh. Lest I slip forever into a hand-wringing catatonic state, I'm really just trying not to think about it. As I peer through fingers splayed across my face and click, click, whimper, click...

10:25 AM, March 22, 2011  
Anonymous Sara said...

You captured pretty exactly what I did, several nights over, last week.

I signed off of a great deal of news two years ago during the Great Crash, and I've learned to be careful of the sources I look to. I don't want to be fed pap, but so many sites that Google brings up, now, are run by ideologues and conspiracy theorists. We get "natural health" news posted by people with supplements to sell, "economics news" posted by people hawking gold stocks, radiation maps produced by people selling overpriced iodine (and did you know that at least six people overdosed on iodine in California, largely based on panic-inducing, scientifically inaccurate articles?)

I'm planning to go back to my local paper -- in print -- as my main source of news. It might leave me sadly lacking in areas, but it makes me far less crazy.

(Note @Kristin: On the other hand, I remember reading a science article a few years back that discussed how seismologists were wondering if New Madrid was shutting down, as they're seeing less, rather than more, activity along it)

12:31 PM, March 30, 2011  
Anonymous Diane Dawson said...

oh Phantom. I have found you again. You write my life for me. I don't think I even knew social networking when I first found your wonderful blog. Actually, don't think I had a kid yet. But when I did - it was BB, only taller.

Back in March, after all this Stuff happened, i imagined myself briefly trapped in the rubble with my two little ones, trying to console them until we were rescued. I think I almost fainted in fear. Immediately made plans to move. Then put blinkers on and checked for more distracting status updates. sigh.

1:03 AM, May 19, 2011  

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