Did You Feel That?

It hasn’t gotten much play in the media, but there was an earthquake here in the San Francisco Bay Area early Sunday morning.

Ah, who am I trying to kid? The papers, TV, and Internet have been full of it. And full of stories about the earthquake, too. That being the case, I’ll skip the detailed retrospective; if you did somehow miss the news, there are plenty of places for you to catch up.

I will note that there have been almost a dozen aftershocks of magnitude 2.5 or higher, including a 3.9 at 5:33 this morning. I slept through it, but it woke Kokoro up, and she in turn woke me up when she jumped off the bed. That meant I was awake at 5:35 to feel a 2.7 quake (it shook the bed slightly more than ‘Nuki did when he jumped on a few minutes later). There was also a 3.0 aftershock at 6:45, just enough to make my monitor sway a little.

Just to be clear, we’re about 15 miles from the center of the original Sunday quake, and most of the aftershocks have been even further away. Despite the way it looks on the USGS map, the aftershocks are not moving north. Presumably whatever Mother Nature is annoyed about is in the Napa/American Canyon area, and she’ll continue to poke at it until she’s satisfied.

But you’re not here for my uneducated speculation about vengeful Earth deities. I know you’re actually here to find out whether the Bay Bridge is still standing.

In short, yes. None of the major bridges in the Bay Area suffered any damage. But don’t get too excited. That doesn’t mean we can relax and accept Caltrans’ assurances that the bridge is perfectly safe.

While people and structures near the epicenter of the quake–i.e. the residents and city of Napa–felt a level IX shake intensity (the USGS characterizes that as “Violent” perceived shaking with “Heavy” damage potential), near our house, it was down to the lower reaches of level V (“Moderate” shaking and “Very light” damage). Continue south to the bridge and you’re well into level IV (“Light” shaking with “none” potential damage).

The Bay Bridge, in other words, wasn’t particularly tested by this quake.

While the damage in Napa and surrounding communities was significant, it could have been much worse. From what I’ve read, the 6.0 quake was just below the level where wide-spread, major damage with massive casualties and major infrastructure damage is expected. That threshold is somewhere around 6.2. The intensity scale is logarithmic, so a 0.2 difference is much larger than it sounds, but the point is that this quake wasn’t strong enough to be expected to cause bridges to collapse.

Until we have a similarly-sized quake on the Hayward or San Andreas fault, the Bay Bridge cannot be said to have been seriously tested, and we’ll have to continue to rely on the engineers’ estimates. Seismologists say we could have such a quake any time. As of 2008, the USGS estimated the chances of a large earthquake by 2038 at 31% for the Hayward fault and 21% for the San Andreas. Note that by “large,” they mean 6.7. That implies that a 6.0 quake similar to Sunday’s is significantly more likely.

For a great number of reasons, I’d prefer to put off a live test of the Bay Bridge’s seismic stability as long as possible.

Musing on Current Events

Blame it on the World Cup. Sports have almost completely taken over Google’s Hot Searches list. Of the top ten searches for Monday, seven are sports-related. Five of those seven are related to the World Cup–the other two are “LeBron James” (basketball) and “Wimbledon 2014” (tennis). Total World Cup domination is expected. What’s more interesting is the three non-sporting items in the list.

At Number Seven, we have “Teen Wolf”. Yeah, more than 50,000 people are looking for information on the fourth season of a TV show based on a thirty-year-old Michael J. Fox movie*. Ah, America, I weep for you! No, actually I’m glad to see it. As long as the general public continues to show interest in Teen Wolf, True Blood, and Twilight, it means there’s still a large audience for urban fantasy. Despite Laurell K. Hamilton’s best efforts to destroy it, I think it’s a sub-genre that still has some room to do interesting things.

* It’s probably germane to mention that Fox’s character played basketball…

Number Nine is “Alaska Earthquake.” Good to know that people are paying attention to what’s going on in the real, non-sporting world. Here’s an interesting fact: According to the USGS, the continental United States has survived 53 earthquakes of magnitude 2.5 or above in the past week. Of those, 31 (58%) were in Oklahoma. You think Mother Nature might be a little annoyed at Oklahoma? I’ve been trying to think why that might be. I doubt it has anything to do with the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, and it seems unlikely that it has anything to do with the state’s unique perspective on marriage. I can’t help wondering how much of Oklahoma’s current miseries have to do with the amount of oil and natural gas that’s been mined in the state. Come on, people, think! Anyone who’s ever played Jenga knows you can’t pull all of the bottom pieces out of the stack without toppling it…

Number Ten. Um. Well, this is where we start getting back to America’s usual fascinations. “Frances Bean Cobain” squeaks into the tenth slot, just ahead of “Robin Thicke” and “Hayden Panettiere.” Think about this for a moment: those three searches cover celebrity, death, sex, and (preferably female) skin. All the topics we normally see cropping up in the Hot Searches list. The World Cup isn’t so much distracting America from its usual preoccupations as it is compressing them.

Update: While I was writing this piece, the search statistics for Tuesday started to appear. The first search to garner enough traffic to make the list? “Luis Suarez.”

Suarez is a member of Uruguay’s World Cup team, and he’s in the news because he apparently bit an opponent during a game today.

Yeah. Bit him. Folks, this is clearly the ultimate news story for the week. We’ve got your sports, we’ve got your celebrity violence, and we’ve even got your urban fantasy–clearly Mr. Suarez is under the impression that he’s a vampire: this is at least the third time he’s been accused of biting someone during a game. The only thing we’re missing is an earthquake. Fortunately for Brazil, all of the South American earthquake activity recently has been in Chile, on the opposite side of the continent.

You know, I just got a great idea for a story…


Tomorrow is the 108th anniversary of the infamous 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The annual memorial ceremony at Lotta’s Fountain on Market Street will be held as usual at 5:11 am. What I find most interesting about this year’s event is that, as the Chron notes, no actual survivors are expected to show up.

It won’t be the first time no survivors have been present–that was last year–but it will most likely be the first time that everyone knew it would be the case. Last year, two of the three known survivors had planned to show up, but both canceled on grounds of ill health.

Winnie Hook died in June. That leaves Ruth Newman and Bill Del Monte as the only remaining survivors. Mr. Del Monte was only three months old when the earthquake occurred, which means that Ms. Newman, who is now 112, is the only person who actually remembers the quake.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of recordings of survivors accounts–that’s a guess, but it seems like a safe one–in a variety of media, so the world won’t lose that piece of its collective memory when Ms. Newman is no longer with us. Even so, I find it sobering to contemplate the impending lack of a living memory of the event.

Some might argue that it doesn’t matter. Memorex had a very successful advertising campaign based on the notion that there is no difference between a recording and the original event. On the other hand, McLuhan would, I’m sure, disagree.

I doubt that any of the people reading this blog post will ever visit Ms. Newman and hear her account of the earthquake in person. And yet, the possibility exists–for now.

In addition to his status as a survivor of the 1906 earthquake, Mr. Del Monte has another distinction: he’s one of the few people who can give a first-hand account of losing more than a million dollars in the Wall Street stock market crash of 1929. Who wouldn’t prefer to meet him and hear him tell the tale rather than hearing it on tape or film?

If there’s a qualitative difference between a live memory and a recorded memory, then allow me to ask a question I can’t fully answer: Is there a qualitative difference between a recorded memory and a memory of a live memory? In other words, which is better in terms of recreating the entire experience of the 1906 earthquake: watching a video of Ms. Newman telling her tale, or sitting with someone recounting Ms. Newman’s tale as he heard it from her?

I haven’t seen any studies on the subject, so this is pure speculation, but I suspect that the listener’s level of engagement is higher when listening to an oral history live than in any form of recording. The “live listener” will create a more vivid mental image and remember more.

If I’m right, that doesn’t make the recordings useless, or suggest that we should stop recording personal histories. But it does suggest that we should be paying more attention to the people recording those histories. They’re not just people holding cameras or tape recorders, they’re important secondary sources in their own right.

But I digress a bit.

Today there are millions of people carrying cameras with them everywhere they go. There have been many editorials decrying the smartphone generation’s obsession with photo-documenting the minutia of their lives. Consider the opposite possibility for a moment: by photographing everything, aren’t they forcing themselves to become observers? They may, as some have suggested, not see the entire scene, but they’re investing themselves in the detail and ensuring that they see and–we can hope–remember something that might otherwise have been entirely ignored.

Yes, in an ideal world we would have both the micro- and the macro-level views of events, but if the choice is between a micro-level view and no view, wouldn’t you rather have the detail without the big picture?

And consider: when the next big earthquake strikes San Francisco, we’ll have the details documented, and we can create the big picture. Nothing new in that, of course. People have been building overviews by collecting multiple detailed perspectives since about thirty seconds after language was invented. But I’ll suggest here that the sheer number of detailed perspectives we’re creating today give us the ability to build a pseudo-first-person view. Quantity does have a quality all its own; the recollections of the person who collects those obsessively detailed smartphone photos of the Next Big Quake may be the next best thing to having been there.