Watch the Hindenburg disaster unfold

On May 6, 1937, LZ 129 Hindenburg burst into flames. 36 lives were lost as the horrific event was caught on camera. Read the rest

Sci-fi author Ted Chiang on the disaster novel we're currently living through

On Electric Lit, Halimah Marcus, interviews speculative fiction author Ted Chiang (Exhalation, Arrival) on the current global pandemic and whether there will ever be a "normal" for us to return to.

HM: What’s the relationship between disruption and doom? Would “the disruption is resolved and nothing is ever the same” qualify as a doom narrative? Or is doom a third kind of story, in which the disruption is never resolved?

TC: A lot of dystopian stories posit variations on a Mad Max world where marauders roam the wasteland. That’s a kind of change no one wants to see. I think those qualify as doom. What I mean by disruption is not the end of civilization, but the end of a particular way of life. Aristocrats might have thought the world was ending when feudalism was abolished during the French Revolution, but the world didn’t end; the world changed. (The critic John Clute has said that the French Revolution was one of the things that gave rise to science fiction.)

HM: Do you see aspects of science fiction (your own work or others) in the coronavirus pandemic? In how it is being handled, or how it has spread?

TC: While there has been plenty of fiction written about pandemics, I think the biggest difference between those scenarios and our reality is how poorly our government has handled it. If your goal is to dramatize the threat posed by an unknown virus, there’s no advantage in depicting the officials responding as incompetent, because that minimizes the threat; it leads the reader to conclude that the virus wouldn’t be dangerous if competent people were on the job.

Read the rest

NYT: In times of global shock people help each other, while the elite panic

This lengthy New York Times piece by Jon Mooallem is subtitled, "The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964 surprised everyone by showing that natural disasters can bring out more kindness than selfishness." The piece is worth reading just for the stunning photos of the devastation that occurred in Anchorage on the evening of March 27, 1964 when the state was struck by "the most powerful earthquake in American history, and the second most powerful ever measured in the world."

Mooallem's piece packs a powerful punch, too. In the aftermath of the earthquake, Alaskans were sharing and cooperative, and it turns out that unselfish behavior during a disaster is the rule rather than the exception:

In the 56 years since the Great Alaska Earthquake, an entire field of sociology, disaster studies, blossomed around the Disaster Research Center, with sociologists parachuting into scores of other communities after natural disasters around the world, and it’s stunning to look back and recognize how much of the resilience, levelheadedness, kindness and cooperation those sociologists saw in Anchorage turned out to be characteristic of disasters everywhere.

The one thing that interferes with the tendency towards altruism in a disaster is something scholars call "elite panic."

Many of our ugliest assumptions about human behavior have been refuted by their observations of how actual humans behave — though we seem tragically slow to shed those old myths. (In some cases, disaster studies teaches us, those in power are so overcome with worry about mass panic and looting that they overreact and clamp down on a public that isn’t actually panicked at all.

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Using the Challenger Disaster to illustrate the 8 symptoms of groupthink

When Yale research psyhcologist Irving Janis coined the term "groupthink" in 1972, he identified eight symptoms of the pathology: the "illusion of invulnerability"; a "belief in the inherent morality of the group"; "collective rationalization"; "out-group stereotypes"; "self-censorship"; the "illusion of unanimity"; "direct pressure on dissenters" and "self-appointed mindguards." Read the rest

Nixon deepfaked to read his prepared speech for a moon-landing disaster

President Richard Nixon had the honor of welcoming Earthlings to the moon, but speechwriter William Safire had prepared an alternative for use in the event of a moon-landing disaster. A team at MIT deepfaked the dead president into this alternative timeline.

In Event of Moon Disaster will premiere at IDFA DocLab on November 22, 2019 in the form of a physical installation designed to re-create a 1960s era American living room.

This project is a production of the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality.

I've been trying to make this exact artifact for months, without success! Making people do things they didn't is much harder than the usual generative fare: the voice, physical consistency, the emotions, and the historical details all conspire to subvert the "easy" part of making someone's chops move. A lie is harder than a joke, which is why lies are posed as jokes. The achieved result, though, is magical and disquieting -- look how they make Nixon choke up! And a warning. Read the rest

Human body trapped in sewage screen causes 14.5 million gallon sewage spill

How much untreated sewage spilled from Tijuana to California as the result of a human body clogging a screen? The International Boundary Water Commission was quite specific: 14,497,873 gallons. The body was discovered by a cleanup crew at a pump station. An investigation is underway to identify the body and find out how it ended up in the pumping station wastewater.

Photo by Ivan Bandura on Unsplash Read the rest

Footage from inside crash-landing Russian plane

An Aeroflot jet crash-landed while returning in flames to Moscow's Sheremtyevo airport Sunday, and only 37 of the 73 passengers and crew escaped with their lives. One took this video from inside the cabin, showing the engine fire and smoke. The video ends as the plane comes to a halt and fire starts to engulf its rear end.

The survivors were all out in less than a minute, according to the BBC's sources. Survivor Mikhail Savchenko posted video that shows how quickly the fire progressed: Read the rest

California Fires: From space, NASA JPL maps damage from Woolsey and Camp blazes

The Advanced Rapid Imaging and Analysis (ARIA) team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, created these Damage Proxy Maps (DPMs) that show the areas in California that were probably damaged by the Woolsey and Camp Fires. Read the rest

Scary radar animation of Hurricane Michael making landfall

There's something about the detail and dimensionality of this animation that really sends a shiver down my spine. Read the rest

How anarchist organizers in rural Puerto Rico rebooted their power grid after the privatized power company abandoned them

After being hammered by hurricane Maria, the residents of the rural Puerto Rican mountain town of Mariana got tired of waiting for the bumbling, privatized, cash-starved power authority to reconnect them to the grid, so the anarchist organizer Christine Nieves founded Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo, one of a dozen-odd cooperatives across the island to create their own solar grid; by the time the The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority finally put in an appearance, Mariana had had power for two whole months. Read the rest

17 dead after Missouri duck boat sinks

17 are confirmed dead after a duck boat on Table Rock Lake in Missouri sank with 31 people on board. Read the rest

How the Grenfell fire spread

Dozens of people were killed and injured when London's Grenfell Tower went up in flames last year. The fire spread under dangerous ornamental cladding designed to make the aging structure, which lacked sprinkers, look modern. The BBC made a set of graphics to show the terrible speed of the blaze, which leapt up through 20 apartments within 10 minutes.

A resident of flat 195 on the 22nd floor called emergency services to describe smelling smoke, but was advised to "stay inside and keep your door and windows shut".

They kept telling them to stay put for nearly two hours. 72 dead. Read the rest

Drone footage of huge fissure opening behind imminent landslide

The Yakima Herald posted this video, shot by Steven Mack, of a growing fissue on Rattlesnake Ridge near Yakima, Wa.

I-82, seen in the footage, is only threatened in "less likely scenarios." The county has pre-emptively declared an official disaster.

The city of Union Gap also declared a disaster, allowing officials to request the help they'll need when the hillside comes down.

The big question remains "When will the slide happen?" State geologists now say they don't expect a landslide event until sometime between late January and early March.

"The honest answer is no one knows for certain. There are a number of possibilities. The most likely scenario is that the landslide will continue to slowly move to the south, where the landslide mass will fall into the quarry pit and accumulate. Monitoring data suggests most of the mass will remain in the pit and on the hillside," the Washington state Department of Natural Resources said on its website.

I've roughly marked the hill that's coming down on this google maps image. Most of it will just fill the quarry you see to the bottom right, apparently.

At least 20 people were killed over the weekend after landslides and flooding in California. Read the rest

How the worst airline accident in history was avoided

My favorite air disaster documentarian, Allec Joshua Ibay, recreated last month's SFO taxiway near-miss, complete with real radio traffic. I skipped the scene-setting in the above embed: an inbound pilot mistaking a taxiway, with a bunch of loaded planes on it, for the runway. Read the rest

Disaster strikes but bride doesn't care

Bus breaks down on the way to the wedding? No problem. Power outage at the reception? The bride did not care. A string of unfortunate events attempted to derail a Virginia bride's big day, but nothing was getting in the way of her happiness. Read the rest

Three-year search for missing flight MH370 called off

Malaysia Airlines flight #MH370 pitched somewhere in the vast oceans west of Australia three years ago, the only evidence washing ashore thousands of miles away. The search for its remains, and those of hundreds of missing passengers and crew, has been called off.

Families of the victims of flight MH370 say a decision to halt the search for the Malaysian airliner that vanished in March 2014 is "irresponsible". ... More than 120,000 sq km (46,300 miles) of the Indian Ocean has been searched with no results. Pieces of debris have been found as far away as Madagascar. But only seven have been identified as definitely or highly likely to be from the Boeing 777.

It's 2017 and they still dress airline pilots up like commodores and let them turn off the transponders. Read the rest

How to land a passenger jet without any flight controls

Allec Joshua Ibay's flight sim recreation of United Airlines Flight 232's loss of all flight controls doesn't skip a second. The unadorned, tick-tock quality of the video makes it surprisingly gripping, not least because of the incredible solution the crew found to their predicament: controlling the plane entirely by raising and lowering thrust from the engines. Even then, they couldn't turn left at all, meaning the slightest overturn right would require an entire 360-degree swoop to get back on target.

Then they had to land it. Read the rest

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