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Saturday, March 26, 2011

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Measuring what has happened


This is supposed to be a humor column.

But in the wake of thousands of dead, a coastline of crushed communities, the sinister threat of radioactive poisoning, and billions of dollars in losses, I feel challenged to find something funny to write about.

Even though we could all use a good laugh.

Yet, I will leave tsunami jokes to 50 Cent, Gilbert Gottfried and others with similar poor taste. To me, those guys are all wet.

It's also hard to forget the gaffe by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who last week called the tsunami "divine punishment" for Japan's greedy ways.

Ishihara soon apologized. But he's lucky he's a governor and not the voice of a duck — like Gottfried — or he too might have been fired.

Personally, I find it hard to comprehend a tsunami, even now. This despite all the newsroom babble and expert commentary. Such words have somehow overcooked the power of nature and left it as something dry and hard. When it is never anything but raw.

The footage of the Tohoku tsunami is graphic enough, but for overall tsunami impact, I feel a need for simpler analysis, using illustrations more than mere words.

A 10-meter wave? That would be as tall as . . .

One Tyrannosaurus Rex. Two giraffes. Three Asian elephants. Four grizzly bears. Or five Michael Jordans.

And a speed of up to around 950 km per hour? Which some sources say a tsunami might reach in the open sea?

At such a number, the bullet train ride from Tokyo to Osaka would be reduced to about 30 minutes, when normally it takes three hours. My 45-minute slowpoke commute into downtown Tokyo would shrink to a bit over three minutes. The Rainbow Bridge would be crossed in four seconds. A home run ball to dead center in the Tokyo Dome would be gone in . . . about the time you can blink.

Push the 10-meter images together with the speed picture and you end up with this: A T-Rex roaring from home plate to the centerfield wall in less than a second.

What a nightmare. What a wave.

And the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that gave birth to such a wave?

Wikipedia says that 9.0 on the Richter scale is the equivalent of 476 megatons of TNT. Wikipedia also says that all the nuclear bombs on earth would give us a kick of approximately 5,000 megatons. Ergo, the big one of March 11 had about one-tenth the wallop of nuclear annihilation. A number which I believe leaves Wikipedia speechless.

Seismologists say such force drove Japan 33 cm closer to America. At that rate, all we need is about 27 million more such quakes and we'll be able to stroll from one Disneyland to the other.

And Mother Nature may indeed have such continental matchmaking on her mind. Just shows what happens when you have too much time on your hands.

Here in Tokyo they say the earthquake force was upper 5 on the Japanese intensity scale, far below the maximum of 7, which is what Tohoku received.

The difference between the Richter scale and the Japanese scale can cause confusion among the unlearned — like me — but a friend at a downtown Tokyo hotel has invented her own earthquake measure, one far easier to grasp.

The March 11 quake toppled televisions throughout her hotel. Fortunately, not a single person was hurt, although the machines themselves were not so lucky.

The new measure? The earthquake ranked as a 190 on the smashed TV scale.

Radioactivity, meanwhile, is calculated in microsieverts per hour.

Which makes me envision a teeny-tiny man named Sievert. How he got so small and why he is so deadly is perplexing. In the end, I prefer a more hands-on measure, like the shattered televisions.

Blackouts are perhaps easiest to fathom, as they are counted by ticks of the clock. Yet, other methods exist here too.

For example, I can now rate a three-hour blackout as half of John Steinbeck's "Travels with Charley," two-thirds of Ursula K. Le Guinn's "The Lathe of Heaven" or all of Joyce Carol Oates' "Zombie." I am nothing if not eclectic.

But if after dark, I have found the best way to measure a blackout is by eye-winks, with 40 being the standard.

Not that I — or anyone — has slept through this.

For there is something captivating in any tragedy. Part of the draw comes from the need to understand what has happened. And part comes from the plain truth that news — all news — is a form of entertainment.

Yet news of this magnitude is far more mesmerizing that most. The quake and its aftermath have overturned millions of lives, but in a more virtual sense — through TV and the Internet — the impact has been a thousand times over. We are all more acutely alive and more naturally humble because of the events of March 11.

And, hopefully, more united in our humanity.

And that's the final measure. The one that is more important than meters, kilometers per hour, megatons and minutes.

How human are we? Now is the time to pitch in and see.



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