Farmhouse narrowly avoids boulder-flattening


A farm in Ronchi di Termeno, Italy, was nearly squashed by titanic boulders that rumbled off nearby mountains in a landslide. One of them destroyed the barn, while another stopped a whisker shy of the farmhouse itself. The furrows the boulders cut through the fields are straight out of a golden age DC comic.

Boulder smashes through Italian farm [BBC]

(Thanks, Fipi Lele!)

(Images: downsized, cropped thumbnails of photos from the Associated Press)

Chernobyl's deadly Elephant's Foot

This is a photo of the Chernobyl "Elephant's Foot", a solid mass made of a little melted nuclear fuel mixed with lots and lots of concrete, sand, and core sealing material that the fuel had melted through. The photo was taken in 1996. At that point, the Elephant's Foot had cooled enough that a human being could stand directly in front of it for an hour before receiving a lethal dose of radiation. When the Foot was first discovered, shortly after the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl power plant, it delivered a lethal dose in just five minutes. You can read Kyle Hill's interesting history of the Elephant's Foot at Nautilus. And be sure to check out this 1991 video that shows how people were able to rig up robotic camera systems to safely take photos of the thing (though, as Hill points out, not all the photos of Elephant's Foot were taken safely).

How to: Protect people from tornadoes

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about a story I'd written on the socio-cultural systems that underly natural disasters — how the way we think, and build, and think about buildings affects who dies and who doesn't. If you'd like to dig into that a bit deeper, Andy Revkin recently pointed me toward several stories he's written at the Dot Earth blog, about designing safety systems, buildings, and cities in ways that allow them to better stand up to the threat of a tornado.

Why Oklahomans don't have basements

Seriously now. Why don't people in central Oklahoma have basements to protect them from tornadoes? The answer, according to the engineers and geologists I spoke with for a column at Ensia magazine, is almost entirely cultural. In fact, people who study disasters say that all natural disasters are really cultural ones — created when environmental forces run headlong into complex human social systems. And that presents an interesting question: How do you protect people from tornadoes in a state where most people don't want a basement?

A marine biologist's guide to determining whether floodwaters really are shark-infested

This is an older piece, but given that we're into hurricane season, I expect it will come up again. How do you tell if the photo you've been forwarded, showing sharks swimming through flooded urban landscapes, is real or fake? Marine biologist (and shark expert) David Shiffman has a simple 5-step process. In fact, it's so simple that I'm sure many of you will already be familiar with these tricks. But, here's the thing, it's helpful to be reminded that the tricks are necessary. They're very easy to forget when a hurricane is crashing into shore and social media is blowing up. Besides which, this will make a handy link to forward to friends and family passing questionable photos of all sorts.

Time Magazine uses Oklahoma tragedy to take deceptive potshot against "secular humanists"

Writing in a Time cover story about the virtue of service, Joe Klein took a religious detour: in the relief army helping Oklahoma recover from a barrage of tornadoes, he wrote, "you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals." He's lying out of his ass, Hemant Mehta points out. But that is the point, isn't it?

At least 34 people have died in earthquakes in Iran

A 6.3 earthquake and one with a magnitude of 7.8 hit Western Iran in the course of just a week. These are largely rural areas, with a lot of mud brick buildings that tend to collapse when the earth shakes. It's hard to say how many casualties there are, in total. Scientifically speaking, the earthquakes were also fairly interesting, writes Chris Rowan at Highly Allochthonous. They happened in different — in fact, totally opposite — ways, with the smaller one happening as plates crashed into one another and the larger caused by tectonic plates moving away from each other. This was along the same plate boundary. How's that work? Rowan has the details.

Why is it so hard to make a phone call in emergency situations?

When bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon on Monday, my Facebook feed was immediately filled with urgent messages. I watched as my friends and family implored their friends and family in Boston to check in, and lamented the fact that nobody could seem to get a solid cell phone connection.

Read the rest

Meteor explodes over Russia

A meteor has exploded over Chelyabinsk , a remote part of Russia 150km north of Kazahstan. The meteor's descent was captured by many video cameras (largely the ubiquitous Russian dashboard cams, it seems). There are no reports of deaths, but apparently there are now 400 reported injuries. At least one large building, a zinc factory, had its roof demolished by the explosion.

A witness in Chelyabinsk reported hearing a huge blast early in the morning and feeling a shockwave in a 19-storey building in the town centre.

The sounds of car alarms and breaking windows could be heard in the area, the witness said, and mobile phones were working intermittently. "Preliminary indications are that it was a meteorite rain," an emergency official told RIA-Novosti. "We have information about a blast at 10,000-metre altitude. It is being verified."

"I was driving to work, it was quite dark, but it suddenly became as bright as if it was day," said Viktor Prokofiev, a 36-year-old resident of Yekaterinburg in the Urals mountains.

"I felt like I was blinded by headlights," he told Reuters.

Meteorite explosion over Russia injures hundreds [The Guardian]

The horrors of an avalanche (and the beauty of really amazing online journalism)

Now this is how you do multimedia.

At The New York Times, John Branch tells the amazing, terrifying story of 16 backcountry skiers and snowboarders caught in an avalanche in the Cascade mountains in February 2012. The article, by itself, is a must-read. But you should also take a look at the absolutely fantastic way that Branch and his editors put the online medium to good use — embedding interactive maps, photos that move like something out of Harry Potter, and more standard videos into a lovely, fluid design.

Alissa Walker, who pointed me toward this piece, said that she felt cold just reading it. And you really do get that feeling. All the elements of Branch's article are brought together in a way that enhances the urgency and amplifies your sense of experiencing somebody else's story. It's really, really, really fantastic.

Read the full story at The New York Times

Crowds aren't stupid. Crowds aren't smart. Crowds are people.

We have this idea that physical crowds are stupid herds. Give them half a chance, and they'll form a stampeding riot mob driven by emotion. Look at history, though, and you'll see many examples of large groups of people being perfectly well-behaved. In fact, in disaster situations, like on 9/11, crowds can even organize themselves in practical ways to help others to safety.

Meanwhile, we tend to talk about virtual crowds — the kind that form online, or between physically distant members of a professional community — as smart. But if that's always true, why do these groups get caught up in financial bubbles and why isn't Twitter a more reliable place to pick up breaking news?

Physical crowds and virtual crowds are different things. But our stereotypes about them stem from a common problem. In both cases, we tend to treat "the crowd" as if it's a distinct entity — as if, at some point, individuals in a group stop being themselves and start to become limbs of a crowd creature. In my latest column for The New York Times magazine, I learned that that's not the way people work in real life. As Clark McPhail, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told me, "Crowds don't have a central nervous system."

Gustave Le Bon was one of the first people to write about crowds as entities separate from the people in them. His 1895 book, “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind,” shaped academic discussions of human gatherings for half a century and encouraged 20th-century fascist dictators, including Benito Mussolini, to treat crowds as emotional organisms — something to be manipulated and controlled. (Perhaps a Le Bonian understanding of crowds makes us feel more comfortable about the atrocities of the 20th century.) But “The Crowd” was more a work of philosophy than of science, McPhail told me. Le Bon’s ideas were based on armchair analysis of past events, not on carefully documented studies of crowds in action. In the 1960s, sociologists began to study protests and public gatherings, and they realized that the things they believed about crowd behavior didn’t align with what took place in the real world.

Read the rest of the story

Image: Crowd, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from jamescridland's photostream

Won't somebody think of the rats?

I'm sure you've all been very concerned, worrying about the impact Hurricane Sandy had on New York City's rat population. The good news: Rats can swim and, while many rats likely died during the storm, there are probably still plenty of them alive. The really interesting news: Nobody actually knows how many rats live in New York City. There could be as many as 32 million.

How cartographers helped clean up after 9/11

This image, made using a laser mapping technology called LIDAR, was taken on September 17, 2001. It shows a 3-D model of the rubble left behind in lower Manhattan following the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Minnesota Public Radio's Paul Tosto has a really interesting peek into the way mapping techniques like LIDAR were used to help rescuers and clean-up crew understand the extent of the damage, look for survivors, and rehabilitate the area around the disaster zone.

The Library of Congress work also includes data from a a thermal sensor flown at 5,000 feet over Ground Zero that provided images to track underground fires that burned for weeks at the site.

It's worth remembering that Google Earth didn't exist back then. The ancient science of cartography has been reborn with the technology of the last decade. Let's hope it's not called on again to map destruction.

See more at the MPR News Cut blog

Via Peter Aldhous

Retired NASA flight director blogs about the aftermath of Columbia disaster

On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia broke up in the sky over Texas, bits and pieces falling onto at least two states. All seven astronauts on board died. As we close in on the 10-year anniversary of the disaster, you can expect lots of media outlets and experts to start offering their take on what happened and what we've learned from it. But there's one voice that you should really be listening to ... and he's speaking already.

Wayne Hale was a flight director on the space shuttle for 40 or 41 missions (His blog says 40, his NASA bio says 41). Flight controllers are the people who manage a space flight—they deal with the logistics, monitor all the various systems of the vehicle, make the decision to launch or abort, and deal with trouble-shooting. In other words, they play a key role in safety, and the flight director is the person in charge of all the flight controllers.

More importantly, Wayne Hale is one of the people who suspected something might be wrong with Columbia before its fatal reentry, and tried to get his superiors at NASA to pay attention to the risks. Here's Dwayne Day writing at The Space Review:

During the Columbia accident investigation I was one of over 100 staff members who worked for the CAIB (not all of them worked simultaneously, and for the many months I was there, the staff probably numbered no more than 50–60). There were so many aspects to the investigation that it was impossible to follow them all, and my responsibility was for policy, history, and budget, and later, some of the issues concerning schedule pressure. But I remember one afternoon when I was talking with an Air Force colonel skilled in aircraft accident investigations when Hale’s name came up and I asked how Hale had been involved in the accident. The colonel explained how Hale had been one of the people who had been concerned about the foam strike during the flight and had tried to obtain on-orbit imagery of the orbiter during its mission, only to be rebuffed by upper level managers. Then, after a short pause, the colonel added: “Hale was one of the good guys.”

But being one of the good guys doesn't mean you don't feel guilty when something goes horribly wrong. On Tuesday, Hale posted on his blog about the Columbia disaster and what is going on in his head as the anniversary creeps closer. It's a sad, poignant post, and Hale promises it's just the beginning of a series of articles addressing his experiences before, during, and after the Challenger disaster:

All of this has brought the searing memories from a decade ago into the forefront of my mind. Not that those memories has ever left me; the memories of early 2003. I was intimately involved in the events leading up to the Columbia tragedy so maybe that is to be expected. But often in the wee hours of the morning when sleep fails, the questions return: why did it happen, how did we allow it to happen, and what could I have done to prevent it.

Some others who lived through those days remember things from different perspectives, they had different experiences, but – somewhat frighteningly – remember events we shared in common in different ways. The passage of time, too, is riddling my memories with holes like Swiss cheese. Names escape me, details are getting fuzzy, and though concentrated thought can bring some things back from the recesses, others are gone forever. Some memories stand out like a lightning bolt in a dark night; many others of those events are gone into the darkness. If I am ever to write down my experience, the time is now.

Basically, you should bookmark Wayne Hale's blog and check it frequently. He'll be posting regularly, over the next several months, and I'm am certain you'll want to read the full series.

Also read: The Space Review article that mentions Hale's role in the Columbia disaster.

Via Alexandra Witze

Blackout: What's wrong with the American grid

It began with a few small mistakes.

Around 12:15, on the afternoon of August 14, 2003, a software program that helps monitor how well the electric grid is working in the American Midwest shut itself down after after it started getting incorrect input data.

Read the rest