Tsunami Feed

Pakistan: What happens next matters.

There's a lot of stuff I've passed on blogging lately. I just wanted to say that I am as interested as anyone else in what became of people in the path of Hurricane Wilma, the Bush administration as we know it lurching towards its unhappy ending, and whether Judy Miller keeps her job. And I have a couple of blog posts of interest to me personally on other subjects saved up for when I get a moment. (I did manage to get out a cute kid post.)

When the tsumani hit, I thought it was the disaster with the largest number of casualties in my lifetime. I looked into the matter and was deeply ashamed that I didn't even recognize the name of the Tangshan earthquake.

Mostly what I've been on about is trying somehow to convey the urgency of a situation in which over three million people are living without a roof over their heads, of whole cities with many injured without a single surgeon available to help, of winter weeks away.

The easy way out is to think that there's just nothing you can do. But that isn't the case. And yes, giving money is nice, but those red plus signs do not rain down upon the afflicted adding to their hit points allowing them to survive. The situation is much more complex than that.

And you know it, don't you?

If nothing else, bloggers can keep it on the front pages, which keeps up the stream of aid donations. But the whole surround in which two countries hold in reserve the possibility of firey death for everyone involved, i.e. a nuclear war between two heavily populated counties, and that this is the excuse of stymied relief efforts just has to be over. The degree of abandonment by the international community these people are experiencing is something that should not hapen to anyone anytime anywhere.

This isn't just about counties far away full of people you would never have met anyway. This is the modus opperandi of the 20th century right there in our faces if we care to see it. This is the Ghost of Cold Wars Past come back to haunt us.

What happens next matters. Try to save them.

Thoughts on the Use of SMS Phones with Disaster Relief Maps

I drafted the following material about a week ago as part of a much longer essay on the possibilities of using maps over the internet for disaster rellief. Some of it drawns upon material from previous blog entries of mine. It was written before I thought there was a realistic possibility of integrating SMS phone information into maps I helped create. Now, if we can get the world out to those who need to know about the SMS Quake blog, we are much closer to the reality of that.

The context of the following passage is that when the earthquake hit, I was at the Wolfram Technology Conference in Champaign, Illinois. So I kept buttonholing smart techies to ask for advice on how what I was doing mightbe done better.

Some of the most interesting suggestions came from Luc Barthelet of Electronic Arts who had come to do a presentation on prototyping the game SimCity in Mathematica. We talked about the utility of having layers of data on the existence or non-existence of building codes, on the relative heights and ages of the buildings. And then he made what I thought was the best suggestion of all, though it probably can’t be implemented this time out: set up a phone number such that people can phone in pictures and information associated with specific coordinates; do this in such a way that it automatically annotates the map. I thought this was a truly visionary suggestion for several reasons.

First of all, some of the best personal reportage from the tsunami had been sent in by people writing on their cell phones and cell phones are a much more ubiquitous technology in the 3rd World than desktop computers with Internet connections. But more important, it seemed to me, was the beautifully humanizing aspect of such a technological innovation. He was proposing that we given disaster victims and relief workers voices, faces, proposing that we be able to see through their eyes.

Traditionally, the view from above—the narrative point of view of satellite or aerial photo—is military, that of the bomber pilot: You look at people that way when you think it might be okay to kill them en mass. One of the effects of having spent weeks scrutinizing aerial and satellite photos for people wanting information about their homes, their families, their pets, is that I am now longer able to look at aerial photos of damage in the same way. It has become much more personalized. I experience it as a stripping away of a twentieth century attitude of abstract detachment, an attitude that the legacy of World War II and the Cold War encouraged.

A few weeks ago, a Japanese fellow who is my age and goes by the handle of Earthhopper was testing out Google Earth's newly added images of Hiroshima and discovered an odd lack of clarity in the area of the Hiroshima memorial, the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Dome.

To correct this oversight, Earthhopper has used the same techniques that Shawn MacBride and the Google Earth Current Events community used to superimpose images of the New Orleans levee breaks upon satellite images, but this time on Hiroshima, superimposing photos of the devastated land on the overly-fuzzy Google Earth view of modernday Hiroshima. His photo caption read,

Image overlay of Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Dome, taken in 1945. The atomic bomb hit the city on Aug 6, 1945 and killed more than 140,000 people on the day, 240,000+ listed as of now.

Earthhopper and I were both born in 1962. He is the son of a physician. I am the daughter of a nuclear physicist, though of the generation after the Manhattan project and who has never worked on weapons research. This lead to some interesting correspondence. Upon seeing his Hiroshima overlays, I wrote,

Each and every one of those several hundred thousand people had a name and a face and a life story. We have been encouraged to distance ourselves from this kind of information, encouraged to be overwhelmed by it. But is that just the way we are, or is it a political construct of the twentieth century? Can we get beyond it? It seems to me that this technique has broad applications in historical photography and in helping us forge a new psychological relationship with history.

What Luc Barthelet was proposing was even more radical and more humanizing: to give voice to those in distress that the 20th century view of the world gives up for dead while they are still alive.

ShareMeanwhile, my CommunityWalk Earthquake Map information can now be exported to a Google Earth overlay. Go to the map, click on the brown "Share" button at the lower right of the map, then click on the brown "Google Earth" button that appears in same corner.

The universe is antagonist enough.

After a six-year debate of Tom Godwin's story "The Cold Equations" in our magazine, The New York Review of Science Fiction, I use great caution when mentioning the story. Nonetheless, one "Dejah Thoris" writing for the Agonist invokes the story to comment on the hard-sf aspect of the tsunami disaster . I resisted the temptation to write about the wave forms as seen from satellites; my own tendency is to astheticize disaster, and I have been keeping it tightly in check. But I think she does a good job, in her short essay, of invoking that without sensationalizing.

Reading her piece reminds me of a comment by the late Hal Clement, one of the icons of hard science fiction, on why his stories had no villains. He said, "The universe is antagonist enough." In the long run, we are all dead. It is only a matter of time. That was the context of the remark, as I recall. John Clute and others have accused hard sf of a certain coldness and lack of affect. Having grown up in physics culture, I have tended to read the affect differently than Clute as a kind of compressed encoded emotional expression.

What I discovered from the years of debate over "The Cold Equations" is that the themes raised by the story produce very complex reactions and passionate argument, argument highly reminiscent of arguments raised by disasters themselves. "Thoris" does an interesting job of balancing these aspects in her examination of the relevance to the current catastrophe.

Among the various post-tsunami outbursts, there have been a certain number of right-wingers wondering how environmentalists could possibly like nature in the face of a disaster such as this. I think, here, also, hard sf has something to contribute. I think of Arthur C. Clarke's story "Transit of Earth" in which a stranded astronaut who is running out of air decides to go explore to see the wonders of the place he has sacrificed his life to reach; or Larry Niven's "Inconstant Moon" in which the sun going nova is observed by the protagonists as intense light reflected by the moon; it will shortly be dawn and so presumably the protagonists will soon die. An appreciation of nature should involve an appreciation and acceptance of the laws of nature. While is some respects, hard sf is a very can-do literature, it also accepts that there are limits to what we can do.

There Are No Words

I used to be a bit of a disaster junkie -- spending days glued to CNN, reading books about disasters, etc. -- and so in grad school I once wrote a paper on responses to disasters. David and I reworked it and published it as the intruduction to the special 9/11 supplement to issue 159 of The New York Review of Science Fiction. Though there are few things about it I would change, I'm very proud of this piece. And it seems highly relevant now. I think it might help people cut each other a little more slack about their responses to the tsunami disasters. (This is not to say that we shouldn't fault Mr. My Pet Goat for being silent for three days.) So here it is. I hope you find it useful. I certainly find it useful to have written this:

Kathryn Cramer & David G. Hartwell
There Is No Word: An Introduction

This is an independent supplement to The New York Review of Science Fiction devoted to writing primarily from the New York City and Washington, DC, areas by members of the extended sf community on or about the events of September 11, 2001.

Real life horror came so suddenly that facts overwhelmed the factive power of the media—the power to make a "true story" out of a jumble of presumed facts. Even though narratives grow up over the facts, sometimes concealing them, they are also our way of taking in what we know about historical events, especially catastrophes. We want to preserve and record what people in our community saw, did, and felt. Our intention is generally to avoid analysis, the imposition of any master narrative, and attempt to preserve a record. Because when the consensus narratives are finally in place, some of the facts will be concealed, or forgotten. We are trying to preserve the suddenness, the revelation that somebody tried to kill us, not much caring which of us, and is still trying.

To a calamity, a disaster, a catastrophe, an apocalypse, a range of responses are possible. The old-fashioned religious response is cast in the terms of moral allegory, deriving its form from the Biblical account of God’s destruction of the cities of the plain:
San Francisco was a wicked city in 1906, and there were those who said after the disaster that it had only got what it deserved. The news was greeted in Benton Harbor, Michigan, for example, with a celebration that included a brass band. They’d known it was coming, those Flying Rollers of the House of David announced. Not only had they known it, they were responsible for it. They’d sent their missionary Mary McDermitt, out there to convert the heathens of San Francisco, and while she preached in the streets, San Franciscans had gone about their merry way, ignoring her. That was too much for Mary, and using powers possessed by any prophet of the Flying Roller sect, she had called down an earthquake upon them. It had better be a lesson to San Francisco, Prince Benjamin, the patriarch of the sect, thundered. There wouldn’t be much time because the world was going to end in 1916." (The Great Earthquake and Fire: San Francisco, 1906, page 3).

There is also the aesthetic response, cast in terms of romantic melodrama in which the event is raised to a level of sublimity, equally composed of horror, wonder, and intense emotional involvement; and the psychological, blaming the victims of the misfortune for having the poor judgement to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; and the rationalist, subsuming the event in a universal scientific system of causes and effects.

The terms "calamity," "disaster," "catastrophe," and "apocalypse" have distinct connotations. "Calamity" places emphasis on one’s emotional response to a misfortune. "Disaster" is astrological in origin and means, literally, ill-starred. It pertains to sudden and extraordinary misfortune. Thus disaster entails the notion of fate and cosmic causality. "Catastrophe" pertains to the denouement in drama, an "overturning of the order or system of things," and to the geological—earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and such. "Apocalypse," frequently used to pertain to the end of the world actually has a broader meaning. Certainly it can refer to the Revelation of St. John the Divine, but it also has another, more abstract, meaning that will prove particularly useful here: anything viewed as a revelation, a disclosure.

These terms form a hierarchy. Calamity relates only to the feelings of its victims, neither giving nor implying explanation. Disaster allows for cause and effect, but the causes are divine, in the stars, not subject to human intervention. In the word catastrophe, we find the invention of the story of an event and the event itself inextricably intertwined. There is a battle for authorship between the story teller and God. Apocalypse is the prediction of or the revealing of the event, not the event itself. We have increasing amounts of predictive data which, one expects, will far outstrip our ability to prevent. The more information we have, the less like calamity and the more apocalyptic the true tales of extreme misfortune will become.

The contemporary discourse of disaster takes a variety of forms, removed by varying degree from the event itself: direct experience; word of mouth—both eyewitness reports and those which are second, third, fourth hand; newspapers; web sites; radio; television; film; photography; science; popular songs and ballads; fiction; poetry; law; and insurance.

The emotional state of eyewitnesses as they recount their experiences may range from extreme excitement to clinical detachment, or combine both. In the discourse of disaster, clinical detachment is not a reliable indicator of objectivity of information and observation. While today we tend to put greater faith in information conveyed with the flat affect of clinical detachment, even in its most literal origins—the clinic—clinical detachment has a rather problematic psychological history. Clinical detachment is a state beyond the range of ordinary emotions. Clinical detachment is acceptable to us for its usefulness in eliminating extremes of subjectivity, not because of its superior moral status; the detached authoritative observer approaches the subject at hand with meditative objectivity that cancels out the moral as well as the sublime responses to disaster. Emotion in subtly buried. But in disaster narratives, especially eyewitness accounts, a usually authoritative and objective observer is as much at the mercy of large forces as any other victim, and loses both authority and the distance necessary for objectivity to the disaster no matter how it distorts the actual disaster. The point we make is that no individual account is privileged.

Cheerful affect cannot conceal the effect of horrific wonder generated by so many visual images of destruction. Nor can flattened affect. The devastation, the cityscape becomes a landscape that speaks for itself. We were saturated with it, immediately after it occurs, from any part of the world. What we know is a concatenation of facts and details which can be assembled in many ways, given the force of narrative. Emotionally, this publication is an attempt to raise the reader’s consciousness through a sincere sensationalism and by giving the reader characters to identify with.

Unlike pre-World War I disasters in which all events for bad or good were seen as part of God’s design, events since the two World Wars, and especially since television became the average citizen’s pre-eminent source of information, have become fragmented, without causality, and take on, through repetition of viewing a flat aspect in which the destruction of the three skyscrapers in the World Trade Center and the portion of the Pentagon, with the sound turned down, becomes indistinguishable from a Hollywood disaster film. Disaster becomes commodification and at the same time, with increasing amounts of information about the event both beforehand and revealed through the events, it becomes more like an apocalypse: what seemed paranoid nonsense becomes sense. And if this is possible, then anything, the denied, the repressed, becomes possible. This forces something like what people mean when they say the September 11th calamities are the death of irony, or the death of postmodernism. Meaning must be constructed, sometimes prematurely; everyone’s great issues are raised, sometimes ridiculously. We use what tools we have.

There are no words yet for what happened here. As a term, terrorism, the use of terror to intimidate or subjugate, coined to describe the acts that caused that part of the French Revolution called The Terror, barely scratches the surface: That we are terrified seems insignificant in the face of the larger goals of these people. Search the dictionary in vain for a verb that means, "(1) to kill indiscriminately with the intention to inspire genocidal rage against oneself and one’s countrymen; (2) to die in the attempt to cause the use of weapons of mass destruction against one’s own people and home for the purposes of attaining salvation and heavenly rewards." And where can we find terms for large-scale, purely man-made misfortunes, deliberate acts, partaking not at all of either the forces of nature or divine will? There are no words. Adequate words are needed, but will come only from confronting raw facts.

So we present not the whole story but a variety of personal experiences of the day and the places and the events. Bear with the first reactions, which are almost uniformly flattened in affect, and read on to find out what it was like. Lest we forget.

Irritable People

This morning I'm finding that some of the more interesting tsunami-related blog readings are the posts of irritable people, people losing their cool over how others are reacting to the tsunami. Here are a couple of examples.

This young lady is having a hard time with small talk because everything seems so insignificant in the face of disaster. She gets a bit lost in a selfabsorbed hall of mirrors thinking about this and then wonders if she might be a shallow person. I think she's too hard on herself. Her first post on the tsunami, about being in a boat in the South China Sea at the time of the earthquake, is also worth reading.

A guy named George at Exile seems to have been watching too much CNN which is simultaneously making him feel helpless and upset. He's decided that this kind of TV is a form of pornography: tsunami porn. Interestingly the theme of voyeurism also emerged from an eye-witness account:

She lies there, brown and faceless, flies all over her. Am I a voyeur because I notice the swell of a breast on this pitiful form and know she was a woman? The earth mover lifts her gently but she slides off at the last moment because the nets she is tangled in pull her back. Happens twice then she slides into her grave.

The most gossipy of the bunch is The Diplomad, a group blog by Republican career Foreign Service Officers who seem to be trying to make the case (anonymously and giving few specifics about their own work) that the US is doing all the distaster relief while the UN sits on its hands. An interesting read, best served with a grain of salt. What I find most interesting is the emotional tone. Also, note that these collectively Foreign Service guys didn't think the disaster was worth mentioning until December 30th.

And finally there is the completely insane response that Josh Marshall notes from the The Ayn Rand Institute's David Holcberg who claims the US government shouldn't give any money for disaster relief.

UPDATE: Speaking of irritable people, since I don't usually read these blogs, I had completely missed the controversy over disaster tourism at Reason and Instapundit.

An Acehnese Child

I like this kid. I hope he's OK. This picture was taken by William Nessen of the SF Chronicle for the November 2003 piece ON THE RUN IN ACEH: With the guerrillas in Indonesia's westernmost province. He looks to me to be about five. The picture was probably chosen for its subtext about child soldiers and the effect on children of being raised in a war zone. He looks like a bright little boy with a strong personality and perhaps the ability to triumph over adversity. The caption reads: An Acehnese child lifts a defiant fist in support of independence during war play.

Worst Case Scenario

What at this moment I find most remarkable is how little impact this greatest of international disasters has had upon my daily life so far.

Kathryn Cramer cooking Christmas dinnerWe hosted my extended family here for Christmas and today they all went home. Our house is much cleaned up and reorganized in preparation. Everyone had a place to sleep; the Christmas tree did make it up on Christmas eve. And the dining table was cleared in time for Christmas dinner. It was a success. We had a very merry Christmas.

I spent very little time on the web and no time with any other new media, since the goings on here were more than enough to hold my attention. On the 26th, we went over to Tarrytown and toured Lyndhurst, one of the robber baron castles on the Hudson. The decorative arts have a whole different narrative of American history in which the very rich can do no wrong except by ill-advised remodelling and the like. And so after the tour, I web surfed a bit and came across a delightful post by Belle Waring on Jay Gould, whose family owned Lyndhurst for 80 years. She is one of Gould's descendants.

I had left the main page of her blog up when I went to bed. When I reloading it when I got up in the morning, I encountered this post:

I hate to think what's happened there. It's just like a horrible nightmare I have sometimes, the towering wall of water, everything frozen for a moment, then the crashing and turning and the baby ripped out of your arms. I have to go lie down now. I feel the deepest sympathy for all those mothers caught in this tragedy, who didn't have the good fortune to be sitting on their balconies with a cup of coffee and watching the dawn come up like thunder at 7 yesterday, like I was. And everyone else, too.

I didn't know what the hell she was talking about. Then I went to CNN. The official death toll was about 21,000 at that point, a mere 10 times the number who died in the WTC. Our Christmas celebration rolled on. Various family members had laptops on our wireless network. We made quiet conversation about the latest on the disaster. 25, 30, 35, 40, 55, 75, . . . Thank God we have no real TV reception in this house. There are certain things I have learned from disasters in the past. One of those is don't watch it over and over on TV.

To the dead and the survivors: No, I don't understand. I can't comprehend what has happened to you. In the abstract, 2,000 dead does not seem much different from 20,000 or 200,000. We made an awfully big deal about 9/11 but what has happened to you is on a scale more comparable to Hiroshima. And yes, I do understand. Small children are not abstractions. When the fuse blew last night and David stumbled on a piece of furniture and hurt his hand, Elizabeth ran down the hall after him saying "Let me kiss it! I make it feel better!" Children are unimaginably precious. Although there are many ways in which we are different, large family gatherings situate one in the midst of cultural universals, all of these most precious things that you had to lose, that so many of you lost. I know that I don't really know what has happened to you but it appears to be the worst disaster that has occurred during my lifetime. Many of the dead I probably would have enjoyed knowing. I have never been to any of the affected countries, and the trajectory of my life will probably not take me there. But your deaths and sufferings are be no less important because of this. You have my sympathies.

The single most sensible idea I've encountered so far on what to do about this is debt relief for the affected counties. Disaster aid is good. Debt relief is better because it allows the affected countries to spend the fruits of their own production on helping their own people when they need it most rather than paying on loans from the West. Push for debt relief.

Throughout, so far, I keep hearing echoes of our own 9/11 rhetoric. Did 9/11 change everything? Maybe yes. Maybe no. But 12/26 certainly changed everything. We just don't know how yet.

Kids' table at Christmas dinner.