image of statue that fell to the ground after the 1906 earthquake
anticipation, disaster, earth

In an Earthquake, Outside

Some jarring footage out of Lorca, Spain, from the 11th of May:

One of the persistent scenarios that has come up when talking about earthquakes is what to do if you happen to be walking down a sidewalk and surrounded by buildings. If you’re inside a building, you should take cover under a sturdy desk or table and wait it out. But if you’re strolling downtown after lunch, what about the falling glass or bricks or cornices? Remember this scene from Yokohama during the Japanese earthquake in March?

workers run from large objects falling from buildings
Large chunks of the building or signage came crashing to the ground. (This is just a screenshot as I haven’t found a video I can embed, but you should definitely watch the clip on the BBC’s site.)

It’s hard to know what the best advice is for any given situation. I remember asking one expert about the outside/near buildings scenario, but all he could really suggest was to get away from buildings. That’s probably as all-purpose as anyone can get. It’s also the advice that comes from FEMA and the Southern California Earthquake Center, for example.

There are so many factors at work in a situation like this—what kind of building, how close are you, can you get inside, is the street blocked— and only a moment to react. There is surely some element of chance involved.

Closed-circuit TV footage from February’s destructive Christchurch, New Zealand, quake showed the exterior of a building essentially peeling off. Still, at the moment of shaking, who would expect that so much brick would fall from the building, and so far—that the physics would be just so? In the footage, a passerby can be seen running toward the building and taking shelter in an alcove. It works, the bricks fall just beyond him and he walks away apparently unscathed. The person who provided the footage says he did the right thing by staying out of the street.

Addendum, 23 August 2011: After today’s Viriginia earthquake, somebody pointed out that FEMA also has a page that says, more directly:

If outdoors
-Stay there.
-Move away from buildings, streetlights, and utility wires.
-Once in the open, stay there until the shaking stops. The greatest danger exists directly outside buildings, at exits and alongside exterior walls. Many of the 120 fatalities from the 1933 Long Beach earthquake occurred when people ran outside of buildings only to be killed by falling debris from collapsing walls. Ground movement during an earthquake is seldom the direct cause of death or injury. Most earthquake-related casualties result from collapsing walls, flying glass, and falling objects.

[Image at top: A statue of scientist Louis Agassiz at Stanford University after the 1906 earthquake. Via USGS Photographic Library.]

anticipation, journalism

Changing Wheels: More multimedia journalism very quickly

When trains cross certain borders—entering China from Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, for example—they have to stop and change wheels. The wheel assemblies, called trucks or bogies, used on trains in Mongolia (and Belarus and Kazakhstan and pretty much all of the old Russian Empire) won’t work in China. These two countries have different rail gauges: the distance between the metal tracks that the train rolls on is 1.52m in Mongolia (called Russian or broad gauge), while China uses the so-called standard gauge of 1.435m. A difference of eight-and-a-half centimeters. You could drop a Chinese train on American or Peruvian or Norwegian tracks and it should roll fine. But try going next door to Mongolia or Russia and you’ve got problems.

So if you’re going to stick with the same train, there’s nothing to be done but hoist up the cars, roll out the old wheels, and install a new set that fits the tracks.

Changing wheels on train car at Mongolia-China border. Photo by Nathan Messer.
Photo by Nathan Messer used under Creative Commons.


I’ve been thinking about that lately as the media froths in frenzied anticipation of an Apple tablet. The tablet, for which we all have high hopes, is being heralded as the latest thing to save (print) media. Surely it will change how we interact with media online, and it will no doubt provide many opportunities for innovation. But it’s all left me with a nagging question. How are we going to do it?

If these media outlets are serious about going through with this, then creating a feature-rich publication full of interactive graphics and video on a regular basis means fundamentally altering the process from story conception through reporting and into design, editing, and production. (Even more so if they want to maintain editorial standards using the same, probably reduced, staff.) It means people who’ve spent a career working in print have to figure out which combination of media work best to tell a specific story and how producing that works, shepherding the print story through the process along with, say, a video or an interactive Flash application.

For the last few years, I’ve helped teach dozens of journalists how to plan for, use, edit, and integrate multiple media (video, audio, photo, Flash, etc) at the Knight Digital Media Center at Berkeley’s journalism school. They come from news organizations wrestling with their online presence and product. Yes, participants pick up concrete skills, and some actually develop and use them when they return to their newsrooms. But what I consider the key benefit of the experience is the understanding they gain of of the relative strengths and weaknesses of specific forms and when best to use them, a kind of literacy of multimedia journalism. They learn that some things that look easy to make are actually quite hard, sometimes things that seem hard to do can be done relatively easily, and most of it takes more time than they thought. All of it useful whether they are producing it themselves, or commissioning and overseeing these kinds of projects.

When I was a geology student, the more I learned about rocks and earth systems and what goes into making the planet work, the more my perspective on the landscape changed. There was the view as I used to see it, and the view as a geologist sees it. Happens all the time, as someone develops a relationship with a set of knowledge or a craft. After the KDMC workshop, people who arrived with little or no experience could begin to figure out how a video story was shot or a radio piece was put together because they had come to understand the tools and the process.

Anyway, back to gauge breaks and bogey replacements. The media organization is the train. There’s a fixed destination (millions of adoring readers and viability, if not profit). They can see a route that will lead them there. But there’s a border where the track is interrupted. On one side, the tracks are the traditional methods that they’ve employed for years, and on the other the tracks are a different size, a larger set of responsibilities and new methods of production. Hesitate too long at the border and risk being left behind; push forward without planning and risk jumping the tracks entirely. I’m curious to see how they do it, whether they re-tool their organizations, and what it might mean for me as a freelancer. How are they going to change the wheels?


  • I’m not saying everyone needs to take the KDMC workshop. But I do believe that editors are going to have to expand their sensibilities and come to a better understanding of timing. It’s one thing to rewrite a section at the last minute, another to re-edit an audio story or re-cut narration at the same time. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it can happen. In individual fields—a radio station, a design firm, a news broadcast—they might be able to do handle that element easily. But here it’s a question of timing the tides so that all boats rise together.
  • The general manager of FOLIO magazine, Tony Silber, has a 2010 prediction: “Staff sizes will rebound as managers realize that staffs designed for print can’t do print and a whole host of new initiatives on top of that, at least not effectively.” I agree about the second part, but we’ll see about the first, whether media organizations will invest in more people for regular production. (Incidentally, in that same feature, Bob Cohn, at the Atlantic, makes a hesitant case for collaboration, an issue that desperately needs addressing at another time.)
  • If all this tablet stuff works out, expect a resurgence in Flash. Some people are very anti-Flash. If you have the option of using Flash or not, often people will advise against it. It’s long been a kind of black box for metrics and contents aren’t picked up by search engines. But we can hope for innovations on that front, because it sounds like these tablet apps will be built in Adobe AIR, which a contact at Adobe says ought to be known simply as Flash for the desktop. (Tweetdeck, if you use that, is an AIR app.)
  • Why hasn’t more of this type of stuff been done already? While the physical engagement of a tablet and the user experience will be new, especially in terms of getting around some HTML design constraints, many of the component features won’t: video, Flash, etc. I guess the tablet has finally spurred media outlets to seriously think about enriching their online arms. Please send me examples of outlets that currently make good use of multimedia, if you have them (other than the New York Times).
  • And as tablet anticipation goes up, Jack Shafer at Slate inevitably bats it down.
  • Disclosure: I have a freelance relationship with Wired Magazine, another of the expected tablet publications. My views in no way represent those of Wired or Condé Nast, and are not informed by any special insight as a result of that relationship. I have no knowledge of what any publishing groups with tablet plans are doing beyond what they have publicly announced.
  • I still believe text and informational graphics are the most efficient mode of communication for media producers and consumers. Just thought I’d throw that in. That’s like the number one thing for people jumping into multimedia to remember. But that doesn’t mean it’s always the best way to tell a story. Otherwise we’d never see photo essays.
  • BONUS: For some mind-numbing fun, see the CIA’s thorough list of how much rail each country has and what size gauges they use.
animals, anticipation, food

The Mendocino County Crab

Some time back in the summer of 2008, I joined my friend Mark Sung for a short trip to the Mendocino coast. We meant to go camping, but the tent spots were full and we ended up fishing until about 4 a.m., anyway. Actually, we weren’t fishing for fish, but crabbing for crab.

Mendocino’s a pretty spot. Here, for example, are some nicely situated homes.
mendocino houses

But there isn’t any shortage of pretty spots north of San Francisco. Less than a quarter mile from those houses, we ran into the Pacific Ocean.

mendocino coast

Those are brown pelicans flying past. They plunge bill-first into the water at 40 miles an hour.

Mark is a great cook, and like some cooks, he’s happy to procure the ingredients himself. The fisherman’s lament (one lament, anyway), is that he never gets out as much as he wants. And the same goes for crabbing.

Mark used a regular fishing rod, and he lent me an extra one. He tied wire cages to the lines, and we crammed pieces of half-frozen squid into the cages, which we secured with thick rubber bands. Along the perimeter of each cage were about a half dozen loops of blue line. With a quick flick of the fishing rod and some luck, the loops close around a crab claw or leg as it pulls the squid from the wire cage. Then reel in.

Mark caught two crabs worth keeping. I caught one. Here’s one of them, which Mark cooked later that morning in its shell with nothing but boiling water and served unadorned. Good eating.


anticipation, irony, journalism, San Francisco

Chronicle of a Death Foretold?

This little news piece from 1981 is making the rounds. As the reporter notes, “this is only the first step in newspapers by computer”:

So many things to love here:

  • the “estimated two to three thousand home computer owners in the Bay Area”
  • the newspaper guy saying “and we’re not in it to make money. We’re probably not going to lose a lot, but we’re not going to make much either.”
  • that the newspaper vendor is safe in his job, “for the moment”
  • that the reporter could be seen as believing it’s just the vendor who has to be worried
  • or maybe just that these two minutes of reportage, seen from a contemporary perspective, are shot through with a dreadful kind of irony.

Welcome to the future.

anticipation, dissipation, history, politics

Why Elections Matter

American soldiers in Iraq walk past the word VOTE spray painted on a blast wall. From New York Times.

Apologies to Joao Silva/New York Times for using their photo. But look: American soldiers walking past a
spray-painted blast wall in Al Awad, Iraq, yesterday.

The first time I voted in a presidential election was in the 2000 election. I was a senior in college in New Hampshire. I voted absentee in Alaska. Before election night, the campaigns had seemed like exercises in pure politics. The country was doing well, the government was running a surplus, and the U.S. seemed pretty invincible, in spite of apparent anomalies like the recent USS Cole bombing and the earlier African embassy explosions. Bush was promising humility, compassionate conservatism, and explicit opposition to nation-building. Gore’s posturing, on the other hand, showed up in his physical performance. We seemed headed for a bland, bureaucratic age in which politicians were interchangeable functionaries. In college, we learned about the end of history. My cohort was restless, believing we would inherit a world marked by anomie. Friends were going to rallies for Ralph Nader–Ralph Nader–who gave young people something to rally around, a promise to Shake Up the Status Quo. And then Florida, outrage both real and manufactured, and an election put to rest by a split Supreme Court vote. The age of aimless political gamesmanship was upon us. The next summer we were preoccupied by shark attacks.

All this didn’t last another year.

anticipation, energy, environment, science

Hydrogen. (What’s not to like?)

This summer I interviewed Kristie Boering, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at UC Berkeley. We talked about the potential environmental side effects of moving to a hydrogen economy. Our discussion, boiled down to about 800 words, is in the current issue of California magazine. Boering is incredibly articulate, and I learned a lot in the process.

If we were to go to a hydrogen fuel cell economy and we produce a lot of hydrogen, and some fraction escapes (because it’s notoriously difficult to contain that small molecule), then we might see emissions equal to or greater than what’s produced naturally. Because it’s such a reactive gas…that could change the balance of chemistry in our atmosphere.

You can read it here.

anticipation, art, money

Winners and Losers: A bad case of the Mondays for some; others, not so much

Rough day in the markets today. We saw it coming last night (we’ve seen it coming). Choose your loser.

But it ended on a high note, right? The champion U.S. Olympics Women’s Soccer Team was on hand to ring the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange. So there were a few winners on Wall Street today. There’s no investment like gold.

women's soccer team at stock exchange

Image via NYSE.

By the way, the opening bell was rung at the NYSE and remotely from Central Park by executives from Starwood and Sheraton. Apparently, they declared today to be GOOD (Get Out of the Office Day). Also, free wi-fi in Sheep Meadow, thanks to them.

Another big winner: Damien Hirst.

Seems appropriate for today. His pieces have incorporated death, drugs, and (financial) excess, with media running toward the prohibitively expensive, like that diamond skull, For the Love of God. Wonder how many of his collectors made their money using the complicated financial gymnastics that threaten to destabilize global markets.

And today Hirst bypassed the usual dealers and went straight to Sotheby’s. It seems as if he sensed his market might be drying up and he cashed out before it was too late. The sale raised $127.2 million–and there’s one more day to go in the sale, called “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever.” The most expensive piece was a preserved young bull, with golden hooves, golden horns, and a gold disc above its head that sold for more than $18 million. The Golden Calf. Sounds about right.

anticipation, competition, politics, race, really?

It is on.

Who says politics has devolved into a slideshow? Looks more like it’s the center ring. This was recorded for the WWE, broadcast last night. I guess they really are trying to get that working class white male vote. No more direct route than pro wrestling, right?


I like how McCain suggests that he’s “the man.” Hard not to hear that and think about “the Man.” As in, don’t let the Man get you down.

While we’re at it, here’s one version of the Fatboy Slim video for “Don’t Let the Man Get You Down.” It is supposed to have multiple endings. I am not suggesting that McCain is racist.

anticipation, China, consumption, development, environment, international, journalism, multimedia, really?

China: Green Dreams (Finally)

China Green Dreams

Last August I went to northeast China and for the following five months I’ve been putting together a story about an eco-village in China. Or, rather, an attempted eco-village.

Here’s how Frontline/World described it: “The village of Huangbaiyu in rural northeast China was supposed to be a model for energy-conscious design. The initial project was to build 400 sustainable homes, a collaboration between U.S. architect William McDonough and the Chinese. But something went awry. Frontline/World reporter Timothy Lesle traveled to the region to investigate.”

I’m glad I got to do this project and look forward to any responses it may get. No doubt they’ll range from positive to negative. Frontline does something different with this slideshow from a web-tech perspective, which is to stream the images and sound like video rather than through Flash.

If you get a chance, let me know what you think. And if you are inspired, let Frontline/World know what you think.

anticipation, India, photography, ridiculousness

Meanwhile, India Waits

Sorry for the delay on the India photos, for those who’ve been asking. I hope now that the FLW project is done (will believe it when I see it), will have time to take care of all the India, Shanxi, Liaoning stuff. As for the above picture, my understanding is that this building exists purely for the sake of symmetry.
anticipation, Asia, China, international, journalism, multimedia, photography


village boy

So there’s a story related to this picture. Actually, the story I’m telling is about the village where this boy lives. It’s the reason why I’ve embargoed all of my photos from China last August. Check Frontline/World tomorrow (Thursday, the last day of January) and you’ll see what I mean.

Alaska, animals, anticipation, environment, food, geography, life

Spotted: Whale Hunting

The Whale Hunt is worth a look. It’s a high-production slideshow (come on, that’s what it is) created by Jonathan Harris, who is a mere 10 days younger than me. He spent a week on the northern shore of Alaska, photographing a group of natives. Some of the photos are really great, others are just pictures–the conceit was that he took a photo ever five minutes. The whole thing is an impressive construction.