Casaubon's Book

He’ll never catch up!” the Sicilian cried. “Inconceivable!”

“You keep using that word!” the Spaniard snapped. “I don’t think it means what you think it does.”

…”Inconceivable!” the Sicilian cried.

The Spaniard whirled on him. “Stop saying that word!” It was inconceivable that anyone could follow us, but when we looked behind, there was the man in black. It was inconceivable that anyone could sail as fast as we could sail, and yet he gained on us. Now this too is inconceivable, but look – look” and the Spaniard pointed down through the night. “See how he rises.”

The man in black was, indeed, rising. Somehow, in some almost miraculous way, his fingers were finding holds in the crevices, and he was now perhaps fifteen feet closer to the top, father from death.

The Sicilian advanced on the Spaniard now, his wild eyes glittering at the insubordination. “I have the keenest mind that has ever been turned to unlawful pursuits.” he began, “so when I tell you something, it is not guesswork; it is fact! And the fact is that the man in black is not following us. A more logical explanation would be that he is simply an ordinary sailor who dabbles in mountain climbing as a hobby who happens to have the same general final destination as we do. ”

- William Goldman _The Princess Bride_

I fear that the Great Vizzini, of Goldman’s wonderfully brilliant and funny book (if you have only seen the movie, you are denying yourself a great pleasure) may actually have to give his title of “the keenest mind that has ever been turned to unlawful pursuits” up now – there are just so many competitors emerging in the last decade or so, most of them bankers and politicians. Of course, it could just be that like Vizzini, they aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are – and we’re starting to get a good look at what a world planned and organized by the corrupt and not-terrifically-bright-in-any-useful-way looks like.

I keep thinking about the word “inconceivable” in relationship to the terrible events in Japan – the earthquake, now upgraded to a 9, the subsequent tsunami and the nuclear events. As Nicole Foss’s work has made clear, the Fukushima nuclear disaster is not a black swan – it follows on the heels of long warnings about the danger of building plants in such seismically sensitive places, and also after safety concerns within the plant itself. We know that the plant was not designed to handle such a major earthquake. There’s a good summation of the media coverage here, if you haven’t been following it as well.

Whatever else this teaches us, it may well be that the major message is that failures that seem unlikely are not, in fact, inconceivable, except in the deeply wrong sense that Vizzini uses it. In a warming world, for example, it becomes even more urgent to acknowledge that outer limits may be crossed, (I do not, of course, mean to imply any connection between earthquakes and global warming, merely noting the dramatic increase in natural disasters that is attributable to climate change) and that betting against the probability of events is a risky proposition.

At the same time, the costs of building levees to withstand category 5 hurricanes (and no, Katrina was not a category 5 hurricane) and deepwater drilling platforms with automatic shutoffs, and nuclear plants in safe zones to withstand higher earthquakes are enormous – at a time when the US alone has 3 trillion dollars worth of delayed infrastructure work that it has been putting off on everything from bridges to sewers to nuclear power plants to the electrical grid to everything else. That 3 trillion does not include the costs of bringing things up to code for more extreme events. We seem to be reaching a point where Joseph Tainter’s observations on the diminishing returns of complexity become strikingly obvious.

My own argument, which I’ve been making for some years, and which has come to have some little currency in at least some areas of agricultural planning, is that we should turn it around and presume failure. That is, we should ask ourselves “what strategies are most effective and least risky in failure situations…given that systems failures happen all the time.” In this model, distributed systems are less dangerous than centralized ones, and those that give partial return even if projects aren’t completed or if models break down are more valuable than those that give more but only if we front-load a huge investment to them. It creates, in the end a different way of looking at our world, and one, I would argue, we desperately need.

Why don’t we do that? The very idea of contingency planning, at least in the US comes with a taint of superstition – that ill luck will strike those of us who actually spend time thinking about what might go wrong. Despite the fact that many public policy agencies and military groups do scenario planning, those outcomes tend not to be taken seriously until we are forced to acknowledge them. The very fact that our culture’s only vision of someone who is prepared for difficult events is the survivalist curled up in a shack with his stash of guns suggests that we fundamentally think that preparation for negative outcomes is odd, unlikely and extreme. This leads us to actually radically underestimate how often things go badly wrong.

This leads to a painful reality – despite the fact that winter power outages happen out my way all the time, to give an example, we know for a fact that the extended outages in my region there will leave us with people who are freezing, and hungry, isolated and unable to cope. They won’t have the batteries for their flashlights, or any strategy for cooking or eating. At best, they will come out of this traumatized and miserable. At worst, some of them may actually die.

But we also know that these folks will be deemed normal, and their lack of preparation will be treated as normal. Just as people in California with no earthquake preparations or folks in Florida with no preparations for a Hurricane will be treated as normal. We treat a lack of preparedness, in our society, as completely reasonable and rational, even expected. Thus, if you are in line at a Red Cross shelter because you have no food and water, even if you were able to stay in your home 48 hours after a hurricane hit Gainesville, odds are no one will even raise an eyebrow and ask why in heck you don’t have any food. The same goes for upstate NY after a blizzard.

My point is not to pick on anyone (and yes, I know that there are some people who don’t have enough food access to have a reserve, but that hardly describes everyone) – in fact, I think the reason that we look upon the lack of personal contingency plans as so reasonable is that it isn’t just personal – our society as a whole has very few contingency plans – much less strategies for adapting to failure.

We regard planning for anything bad as a sign of an unhealthy focus on the negative. We feel it is so unhealthy that we find that at every level of our culture – from the purely personal question of whether we have a strategy for dealing with common disasters like job loss or disability to the international policy level where no one seems to have ever asked any questions about what might go wrong on a host of subjects (consider the UN’s most recent report on food which only implicitly acknowledge energy supply issues or the strong connection between food and energy prices) – we have no contingency plans. Not only do we not have them, but we dismiss and deride anyone who suggests we make them.

All of which suggests that we have a very troubled relationship to the idea of failure. Speaking as someone whose entire body of work could probably be summarized as “Ummm…have you thought about what happens if something goes wrong?” I’m acutely aware of how unpleasant and frightening most of us find the idea of failure – and because we find it unpleasant and frightening, we are likely to dramatically underestimate its likelihood and frequency, and be truly shocked when failures happen. But in fact, we shouldn’t be shocked – failure is far more routine and normal than we expect. Not only is it normal, but treating it as normal might actually reduce the likelihood of disaster.

For example, for a good bit more than a decade now, a large number of voices have responded to the idea of globalization with fears that the creation of a global economy might eliminate protections for the most economically vulnerable members of the world’s economies, concentrate wealth in the hands of an increasingly tiny elite, erase valuable cultural differences, lead to political hegemony and environmental rape, and also make economies more vulnerable to difficulties that once wouldn’t have concerned them much.

It turns out that anti-globalization activists were right in just about every particular. Globalization did screw quite a lot of the world’s poor, to put it bluntly, and the collapse of globalization seems poised to screw billions more. Tying our economies together is starting to look like it wasn’t such a hot idea for a lot of folks. Oops! Globalization did result in unprecedented ecological damage – which we now have to live with – consider China’s recent acknowledgement that its own economic growth cannot continue because of the ecological damage it creates. It turns out that the depressing people who kept saying “umm…don’t we need a back up plan just in case this doesn’t work the way you hope it will” and “shouldn’t we maybe reconsider something that works even if things don’t go well?” were right.

There have been similar groups speaking out about energy issues for decades, or asking whether it might not be safer not to degrade the ecology in the first place than to rely on our ability to fix it when problems become evident. And they to have been accorded precisely the amount of respect you’d expect – not much. And they too, turn out to have been right. It turns out that we may be spending 1/5 of global GDP (according to the Stern Report) addressing the consequences of catastrophic climate change, unless we can stop it – which means that if we fail in the almost unbelievable challenage of arresting climate change, we’re facing a potentially permanent Depression. No economy can bear that burden. Our economy may well be permanently impacted by declines in available energy supplies, and our failure to invest in renewable energies. Ooops. It turns out that a lot of folks pointing out overarching problems were, well, right.

But along with the “Oops” and the enormous chorus of voices calling our current crisis unforseeable, even as Goldman’s wonderful villain Vizzini would say, “Inconceivable!” and they talk of Black Swans and unpredictability. None of it is, however, actually inconceivable, as a large number of people who di the work of conceiving pretty much what was happening can attest. As Yeats put it, things fall apart. And they do it, not once in a great while, but rather often, even when the falling apart is something we do not choose to conceive.

Thus, the war to end all wars built the ground for the next one, and the end mechanism of the subsequent war left us with the massive and presently insoluble problem of nuclear arms. Similarly, as Jared Diamond observes, all of our most intractable present problems have been caused by the solutions we’ve sought to other problems – peak oil and climate change aren’t just bad things that are happening to us, they are the logical consequences of our solutions to other problems – standard of living, transportation and food issues.

In many cases, social problems follow the same course – the urbanization, for example, of Southern rural African-Americans during and after World War II really did free a lot of poor southern workers from poorly paid domestic and agricultural labor, and offer short term increases in wages. They also destroyed cultural networks, stripped farmers of land and access to natural resources, and resulted in an urban poverty arguably may have been more destructive than the rural poverty that preceeded it.

Now it would be false to suggest that the problems that we were solving weren’t real – and that for a time, the solutions didn’t seem better to some people. For many a Chinese peasant, eating meat twice a week is better than twice a month before globalization. From the perspective of someone who values the Great Northeastern Forest, the replacement of coal and wood for heating by natural gas and heating oil was a real improvement over the old options.

The problem is that the period of “solution” was brief and the new dependencies and destructions make the fall back much harsher – so, for example, the peasant who left the land to work on the periphery of the big city now no longer has his job, nor his land – or if he can get the land, climate change and pollution mean that it cannot support him any longer. Now the American Northeasterner is completely unprepared for disruptions in price or supply of their energy – and adaptation is likely to cause even greater deforestation than before. That things look different through different lenses is inevitable – but each layer of solution and complexity seems to have more dissenters, and put us in line for a bigger fall.

This might seem an argument primarily for contingency and scenario planning, and at a minimum, it should be. I’d like to suggest something more fundamental, however, something that works at the personal level, and at the level of societal planning. What if we assumed failure? What if, instead of no contingencies, or simply having a mostly unfamiliar background plan for when things go wrong, we insisted that our society work not just when things are going well, but that the very solutions we choose operate to serve us even when they fail in reasonably likely ways?

My family uses this model in our planning for the reasonable contingencies of our lives – we have no – no bomb shelter, no SETI system to keep out alien invasion, and if the world goes into a sudden ice age, I’m woefully short on Mammoth repellent. But we’re pretty good when we talk about things like ice storms knocking out the power – it happens nearly every winter. And because of that, my house works pretty well without power. I have solar lanterns, rechargeable batteries and solar chargers, a couple of oil lamps, a manual water pump for when the well goes out, a wood cookstove, a solar oven and a composting toilet and a spare battery for the laptop so I don’t lose too much work. Our house works great during the vast majority of times when we have power – if the power goes out, well, we flip on a few battery lights, put dinner on the cookstove to simmer and go out and bathe standing in the tub with a solar shower bag filled with water that warmed on the cookstove.

Now you could argue that getting my home ready to function this way took money, time and energy, and you’d be right. So is it really worth it? Sure – and this is why. The very tools that I use to ensure that I’m comfortable in a power outage also serve me when the power is on. The solar battery charger works great for my son’s nighlight, and the flashlights. The down comforters that keep us warm when the only heat is coming from the woodstove also work great when we just don’t want to burn fuel or spend money on heating oil. The solar lantern goes out to the barn with me, the cookstove allows me to use the wood that the ice storm is going to provide us with in fallen tree limbs. The solar shower bags are wonderful for that outdoor sluice-off in the summer when I’m covered with garden mud.

Now these adaptations could operate as contingency plans – and then they would be costly and energy absorbing. Having a wood cookstove that you use only when the heat or cooking facilities are out is certainly better than nothing, but it is an awfully expensive way to deal with a crisis. I certainly couldn’t blame those who are contingency planning for saying it might not be worth it. On the other hand, a cookstove that makes use of downed wood, cuts your energy bills and also gives you an emergency backup, well, that’s not a bad solution. By working not from the assumption that I ought to have an emergency plan for an unlikely contingency, but from the assumption that complex systems fail regularly *and* that the best system is to build infrastructure that assumes failure but also functions well without it, I get the best of both worlds – it actually doesn’t cost me very much to adapt.

How would this work on a world policy scale? Well, let’s take energy as an example. Let’s assume that more than 30 years ago, during the first energy shocks, we’d recognize that both absolute oil supplies (as characterized by the peaking of North American oil) and foreign supplies (as characterized by the OPEC cuts) were unstable, and subject to failure. How would that have changed our energy and economic policy over the last 30 years? It is very difficult to me to imagine a scenario in which we did not begin seriously building out renewable energies then – or one that did not offer
improvement over our present situation.

Simply assuming that the oil supply might fail might well have reduced our overall economic growth (although that is by no means a given) compared to what we later had fueled by cheap oil. But among the economists I know, I cannot find one who thinks that even the very short-term economic impact would have been negative enough to offset the advantages – and many doubt the impact would have been negative at all. Similar scenarios are devisable if, for example, we were to have taken the information about global warming available to us in 1979 (copious, actually) and said “it seems pretty likely that continuing to burn fossil fuels would be a bad idea, so let’s begin a gradual phase out.”

But, of course, hindsight is always 20-20 – what would such a policy look like right now? Well, in economic terms, having a policy that planned for failure would mean assuming that the economy is not going to rebound thoroughly, and that our investments in infrastructure must be concentrated on mitigating the suffering of people who are going to be poorer, not shoring up financial institutions bound to failure. Thus, we’d be putting our billions into small businesses, not huge ones, into basic things like food and insulation, instead of big luxury items that bring in profits in good times, but are useless in bad ones.

But the funny thing about this is that just like the example of the energy build-out 30 years ago, I think there’s a compelling case to make that we would be richer in the long run. There is little doubt we’d be better off if it took only a little energy to heat our homes, if we didn’t have to buy health care and if we invested in small scale agriculture. I’m not going to sit down and make it point by point today – but I’d suggest historically speaking, the boom and bust cycle doesn’t necessarily result in net improvements over a more stable model – there’s a detailed analysis of this in Thomas Princen’s marvellous book _The Logic of Sufficiency_ that is a superb starting point for this case, and I will write more about it.

Japan’s present disaster may or may not be transformative, but what it will be is a reminder of how often failure comes, and with consequences we should expect, but do not. I wonder if it is possible to imagine a world in which failure is normalized, part of the narrative, expected and in which we choose our strategies to return positively even when things, as they say, fall apart.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 D. C. Sessions
    March 14, 2011

    Random responses:

    1) Basic behavioral psychology:
    a) Reward trumps punishment as a behavioral modifier.
    b) Immediate vastly trumps delayed as a modifier.

    2) Value of returns are nonlinear. An agricultural example is that to a farmer, crop yields above subsistence are valuable in proportion to the excess, but yields below subsistence don’t matter how low they go. There’s a point where planning for crop failure is pointless, because we die — so people don’t have any individual incentive to plan for graceful degradation below subsistence. (Rulers do — heartless bastards.)

    3) Similar calculations go for complex societies. Famously, bankers privatize profits as bonuses and pass the losses off to others. That’s a form of “planning for failure” but not, I suspect, in the sense that you mean it.

    4) Which brings us to the matter of negative externalization. Japanese nuclear plants bring us lovely examples on that front: the profits of those plants have been privatized over the past forty years, but the risks are going to be borne by all Japanese and (in very extreme cases) by those living near the plants.

    5) As long as we’re talking about failure: volcanoes erupt, tsunamis happen, etc. — yet people insist on building on the slopes of the volcanoes and along seacoasts. And, strangely, this may not be a bad set of choices from a species perspective at the village level. The decision processes don’t seem to scale well.

    6) In spite of the drama of the nuclear plants I’m having a hard time seeing them as weighing remotely as much as something like 100,000 dead and the loss of so much other property.

  2. #2 Greenpa
    March 14, 2011

    Sharon- excellent.

    Alas, you are forced to end with a question. Equally alas, I gave my unhappy answer to that question yesterday, over on a NYT post focusing on why Americans don’t prepare for and expect tsunamis yet.

    http://tinyurl.com/4qqhk69

    Could we? maybe. Should we? yes. Will we? no.

    Therefore? It’s really up to the individual; which is hard.

  3. #3 risa b
    March 14, 2011

    Oh, Sharon, I was going to say all this, but you said it better, so I think I will do something else today; maybe bake.

    I do think we’re not seeing the word “commons” enough. What I got from Macondo was that there is a commons, the Gulf, and the health of all things living in it or near, and a commodity, the underlying highly pressured energy-rich poison. And that if some rich [deleted] accidentally pisses on the entire commons, large armies of public-relations professionals and even volunteers (mostly libertarian bloggers who admire rich [deleted]) will rise up in wrath at the possibility that the rich [deleted] might be held accountable.

    Which makes it terribly difficult to find out what actually happened. I have been asking what just happened at reactor number three and was told, in effect that I’m an alarmist who should shut up. It’s a tough atmosphere in which to try to make informed decisions concerning the health of my family. I’m beginning to think that someone somewhere regards me and my family as just so much dirt, and has cut back the number of lifeboats on-board accordingly.

    How can we get back to thinking of the commons as a commons rather than as some rich [deleted]‘s personal commodity without everyone screaming “socialist” at us 24/7?

  4. #4 D. C. Sessions
    March 14, 2011

    How can we get back to thinking of the commons as a commons rather than as some rich [deleted]‘s personal commodity without everyone screaming “socialist” at us 24/7?

    The obvious solution to a commons is enclosure.

    </sarcasm>

  5. #5 David Wescott
    March 14, 2011

    This is the best blog post I’ve read in a long time. I wish you could offer more in terms of solutions, but since it’s not like anyone else has, I don’t think it’s fair to force that standard upon you – in reality the title of your post is the “Solution” with a capital S – I can only hope that people will get it before it’s too late.

  6. #6 Kate@LivingTheFrugalLife
    March 14, 2011

    @ David Wescott

    Not trying to be snide, but Sharon *has* offered more in terms of solutions. A lot more. Check out her books, or dig through a year or two of her old posts. It’s there for the reading.

  7. #7 Betsy Robertson
    March 14, 2011

    Sharon, Great post ranging from the specific to the global, one of your strengths. I especially appreciated the analysis of why people don’t prepare for disaster. I get so much criticism for “focusing on the negative” and not “thinking positive”. It’s in the American psyche to only see/ remember the sunny days.

  8. #8 southernrata
    March 14, 2011

    Thank you, Sharon. Of all the words you have written, I think these are the ones that mean the most to me. We have recently suffered an earthquake in our country, which wasn’t nearly as devastating as the Japanese calamity, but still trashed about half of one of our major cities, and is going to have long term social and economic consequences for all of our tiny country.

    It also made us focus on what is really important for people: shelter; clean water and adequate sanitation; enough food; health; a source of livelihood, and overarching all this, an involved, caring community. Miraculously, it still seems we have something like the last, now we have to focus its energies into ensuring the other necessities of life for all its members without stealing from the future.

  9. #9 risa b
    March 14, 2011

    @DC “The neutrality of this article is disputed.” I expected to see that, before I clicked the link, and so was not surprised. There is a war on; and Libya, Wisconsin, Fukushima are among the fronts. The green grainfields of medieval England fell in an earlier battle. Same war. The difference between most of Sharon’s readers and the rich is that we know we’re poor; the rich hide it from themselves. Everyone eats one apple at a time.

  10. #10 Eric Juve
    March 14, 2011

    I live on the central Oregon coast. Everyday I drive by signs that elucidate that a tsunami is a very real threat here as was demonstrated recently. I have my tsunami supplies consisting of canned food as well as the means to prepare it, a supply of water and propane gas supplies. I have a very serious medical kit. I have backup power which will work assuming my house survives the earthquake, if not my small storage shed is large enough to work as a temporary shelter( built with an earthquake in mind). I also invested in a Honda trail bike which should allow me to get around destroyed roads. I don’t live in fear of the “Big One” but I think we should all prepare the best we know how for known local hazards. All of these items are useful in day to day life as well. I regularly let my neighbors know that they should do likewise, it is the responsible thing to do.

  11. #11 NoAstronomer
    March 14, 2011

    “Thus, if you are in line at a Red Cross shelter because you have no food and water, even if you were able to stay in your home 48 hours after a hurricane hit Gainesville, odds are no one will even raise an eyebrow and ask why in heck you don’t have any food.”

    Great article but I really wanted to make a point that many of the Japanese now desperate for food and water probably did have emergency supplies. In their house. Which is now gone.

    As Eric hints, what if your emergency plan is swept away.

  12. #12 D. C. Sessions
    March 14, 2011

    As Eric hints, what if your emergency plan is swept away.

    As I mentioned above, there are degrees of “failure” where there really isn’t much point in planning. At the individual level, for instance, having your home at Ground Zero of a nuclear attack (or tsunami of Friday’s scale[1]) while you’re away is kinda not worth preparing for.

    At the national level, nuclear attack is quite a bit more worth planning for. Dinosaur killers, not so much. It’s all relative.

    [1] I did some back-of-the-envelope numbers and am not sure I can wrap my mind around them. It doesn’t seem quite real that the tsunami delivered a Hiroshima-equivalent every hundred meters of coastline. However, the amazing comparative photos at
    http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/03/13/world/asia/satellite-photos-japan-before-and-after-tsunami.html
    certainly look worse than Ground Zero at Hiroshima.

  13. #13 Sharon Astyk
    March 14, 2011

    NoAstronomer – that’s why I say “even if you were able to stay in your home” which kind of implies it is still there ;-). Of course there are scenarios that can’t be adequately prepared for. The point is not to get in the way of the real victims by being unprepared for what you *can* deal with.

    Sharon

  14. #14 Ruben
    March 14, 2011

    One of my favourite examples of design for failure is: When the escalator breaks down, you still have stairs.

  15. #15 Brad K.
    March 15, 2011

    Sharon,

    I think (without benefit of formal study) there are several forces that affect earthquakes, volcanoes, and other major seismic forces. One is gravitational – the moon, sun, and planets as the earth orbits and spins through their influences. Another is sheer photonic pressure from the sun, combined with flares, etc.

    And I think the seasonal variations of temperatures migrate as pressures through the earth’s crust. The deeper you go, the longer the delay, and the more temperature variations average out. And I do think that the weirding of the atmosphere as we get further from the ‘mildest decade on record’ – the 1950s – means more variations from region to region as colds get colder, warms get warmer, and ‘traditional’ patterns of heat, cold, and water shift about.

    The same argument that suggests that weather gets more extreme with global warming suggests to me that energy imbalances in the earth’s crust will shift in a similar manner.

    Every student of calculus has had to suffer through that tedious topic of ‘annealing’. I think annealing applies to the earth’s crust.

  16. #16 Greenpa
    March 15, 2011

    Brad- “I think (without benefit of formal study) there are several forces that affect earthquakes, volcanoes, and other major seismic forces. One is gravitational – the moon, sun, and planets as the earth orbits and spins through their influences. Another is sheer photonic pressure from the sun, combined with flares, etc.”

    Formal study can be useful. :-) I’ve got some in geology, plus the added benefit of a college girlfriend being a geology major-

    You’ve overlooked in that list what is probably by far the largest factor affecting earthquakes; the huge and accelerating loss of mass from Antarctica. NASA in 2006 measured ice loss at around 150 cubic KILOMETERS of ice per year, between 2002 and 2006. We know it’s been losing ice mass long before that; and ice loss is now accelerating, as usual, “more than anticipated.” What does a cubic kilometer weigh? The calculator I have available at the moment doesn’t go that high. Start with one cc of water equals 1 gram; by definition, of course. It’s a big bunch of gigatons.

    Continents are less dense rock floating on higher density rock. Floating. When a continent’s mass decreases- it will bob up higher. That’s what’s going on in the Ring of Fire – all those faults have to re-equalize forces as they change.

    So think of Antarctica and Greenland as icecubes, bobbing up in your martini. As they bob; they’ll be making ripples.

  17. #17 JimS
    March 15, 2011

    We are a democracy. People don’t vote logic. They vote culture. Our culture insists that victory (over the frontier, the Nazis, floods, strong winds) is earned by belief in our victory — positive thinking. Defeat is punishment for doubt. People who point out flaws in levee systems cause floods. People who say everything will work out fine protect us. Democracy is suicide.

  18. #18 kjmclark
    March 15, 2011

    With due respect to Stoneleigh, the earthquake and tsunami most certainly were a black swan. If they weren’t, then we should be able to calculate the probability of such an event happening. The last time there was such an earthquake/tsunami pair in that area was 1100 years ago. That has been estimated as a 8.6. So what were the odds of this quake being a 9.0? There *was* an estimate that the probability of an 8.1-8.3 in the area in the near future was high, but 9s on the Mw scale are exceedingly rare. This quake had several *times* the energy expected. How do you calculate the probability of an event that only happens every thousand years, and never before at the intensity that happened? Remember that Richter/wave magnitude scales are logarithmic, not linear scales.

    That plant probably would have survived the expected quake and tsunami. But not the unpredicted, and far worse than recorded history, quake and tsunami that they got.

    Prior Sanriku earthquake [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/869_J%C5%8Dgan_earthquake_and_tsunami]

  19. #19 jo
    March 15, 2011

    Greenpa- great points. Attached is a link from one of the other science blogs that goes into the physics of the earthquake. It is well written and easily understood.

    http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2011/03/why_physics_gives_us_earthquak.php

    Additionally, on the topic of preparedness I was listening to NPR on the way home today and there was a great discussion on preparedness. A listener e-mailed in that he had a 3 month supply of food and water for his family as well as an extensive medical kit and bug out bags for each family member. One of the “experts” then stated that the listeners preparations were appropriate and that most Americans do not have adequate supplies on hand. She went on to say that she herself had a “go bag” as she is involved in disaster response but that her own home preparations were lacking. Her final comments on the subject were that even if your supplies are gone it will be your neighbors supplies that help you make it through.
    All in all a thought provoking discussion as is this post and the ensuing thread.

  20. #20 Stephen B.
    March 15, 2011

    Greenpa, your comments about Antarctic ice melting got me to wonder about the effects of moving a good deal of that ice/water northward. Specifically, I’m thinking of the change in angular momentum of the oceans and earth’s crust in the area for, as that mass of water melts and spreads out through the oceans, it has to conserve its overall angular momentum (or try to) as it moves into lower latitudes. The water is akin to a figure skater in a tight spin who then re-extends her arms out. In order that angular momentum be conserved, her spin speed slows. The same effect should hold as we move mass from the poles and diffuse it through the oceans. What percentage of mass is moved compared to the whole earth system I haven’t a clue, but there must be some kind of stress placed upon tectonic systems because of this change as polar ice shrinks. (Of course, it was also stressed years/eons ago as the south polar ice grew.) I guess since Arctic ice floats on the Arctic ocean, there isn’t nearly as much mass transfer involved in the North. Greenland is there, but it is somewhat smaller and isn’t at the very North Pole either.

    Hmmmm.

  21. #21 daedalus2u
    March 17, 2011

    This is an apocryphal story, but my understanding is that when electric starters for cars first came out, many cars still kept the connection for crank starting the car. The presence of a “back-up” connection for a crank became a mark that the manufacturer considered that their electric starter was not reliable enough to dispense with the crank altogether.

    The cost to keep the crank there was very small. The fitting was used to start the engine for the first time on the assembly line, so eliminating it didn’t really save anything. It was a marketing gimmick used by salesmen to convince customers how confident the company was of the reliability of their electric starters. Of course the decision to leave the crank or take it out had nothing to do with the actual reliability of the electric starter.

    That was the “reasoning” used by the bureaucrats running the Soviet nuclear power system from their dacha in Moscow. They were so confident of the safety of their reactors that they didn’t need a containment building. Of course any engineer who disputed that was disloyal and at fault for not making the system safe enough to not need a containment building and so got to go and work in Siberia.

    Shortly after the Iraq war started, Bush’s treasury secretary was fired because he had the audacity to suggest that the Iraq war might cost more than $50 billion, perhaps even as much as $200 billion. As costs escalated all that the Bush administration said was “no one could have predicted”.

    When large engineering projects, such as The Big Dig in Boston are costed and budgeted, the budget is approved before any work is done, and so is before it is know how much it is actually going to cost. Much of the work involved putting stuff deep underground. But there was no knowledge of the soil conditions underground. Was it mud, clay, sand, or rock? Those have a gigantic impact on the cost, but until there are test borings no one has any idea what is there.

    What the engineering firms did, was assume the easiest conditions, budget based on that, bid based on that, do design work based on that and then when the test borings come back throw up their hands and say “no one could have predicted” and then throw out all the design work based on the nonexistent conditions and get paid to do new design work for the actual conditions.

    The problem is the process. You can’t know how much something is going to cost before you know what it is you are going to do. The engineers know that. The politicians should know it too. But a different process wouldn’t be as susceptible to being “gamed”, and it is in “gaming” the system that the highest profits can be made.

  22. #22 Randy Owens
    March 19, 2011

    Greenpa #16: What does a cubic kilometer weigh? The calculator I have available at the moment doesn’t go that high. Start with one cc of water equals 1 gram; by definition, of course. It’s a big bunch of gigatons.

    Easier to just know that one cubic meter of water weighs one metric ton. A cubic kilometer has 1000^3 m^3, so it would actually be exactly 1 gigaton. Ice will have a bit less mass, of course.

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