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Posts Tagged ‘disaster

“One ingredient of many fiascos is that great, massive, heart-wrenching chaos and failure are more likely to occur when great ambitions come into play”*…

 

J Park

 

There’s a term for when a single hiccup triggers a chain reaction that makes everything go absolutely, altogether, totally, and undeniably wrong, causing a large and intricate system to collapse on itself. On the street you might call it a fiasco—but in more formal parlance it’s called “cascading failure.”

Sound familiar? If you’ve been through an electrical grid outage, there’s a good chance you’ve heard it in that context. It’s not a new phenomenon, but it’s a relatively recent term, and the complexity of modern life has multiplied the real-life scenarios for its use in the fields of technology, biology, and finance. The easiest way to think about cascading failure is as a line of tumbling dominoes—or the plot of Jurassic Park, a blockbuster about how the smallest of errors can lead to total catastrophe…

Epic power blackouts, the “flash crash,” coronavirus response, and so much more: “Cascading Failure.”

* Ira Glass, in his introduction to “Opening Night,” Act One of the This American Life episode “Fiasco“… and the funniest 21 minutes of radio your correspondent has ever heard.

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As we consider causation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1986, at 11:10p, that operators at the the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine received the go-ahead to commence a safety test that was scheduled to coincide with a routine shutdown for maintenance.  Just over two hours later, an unexpected power surge triggered what we now know as “The Chernobyl disaster”– considered, even after Fukushima, the worst nuclear catastrophe in history.  It killed 31 people directly, including 28 workers and firefighters who died of acute radiation poisoning during the cleanup.  Experts believe it likewise caused thousands of premature cancer deaths, though the exact number is disputed.  To this day, the area around the plant remains so contaminated that it’s officially closed to human habitation.

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A view of the facility three days after the incident

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Written by LW

April 25, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Results aside, the ability to have complete faith in another human being is one of the finest qualities a person can possess”*…

 

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Downtown San Francisco ablaze after the 1906 earthquake, from the slope of Nob Hill

 

Amadeo Peter Giannini was born in San Jose, California in 1870. The son of Italian immigrants had an outsized personality and unlimited faith in the American dream.

Giannini began by selling fruits and vegetables from a horse-drawn wagon. But he was made for bigger things. At age 34, he launched a small bank in the Italian neighborhood of North Beach, San Francisco. At the time, big banks lent only to large businesses, handled deposits of the wealthy, and frowned on aggressive advertising.

The novice financier knocked on doors and buttonholed people on the street. He persuaded “unbanked” immigrants that gold and silver coins were safer in vaults than under mattresses. Moreover, the money would earn interest at his “Bank of Italy.”

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On the morning of April 18, 1906, a massive earthquake hit San Francisco. The ensuing fires burned down the large banks. Their superheated metal vaults could not be opened for weeks—lest the cash and paper records catch fire when oxygen rushed in.

As flames threatened his one-room bank, Giannini spirited $80,000 in coins out of town. He hid the precious metal under crates of oranges and steered his wagons past gangs of thugs and looters in the streets.

As other banks struggled to recover, Giannini made headlines by setting up a makeshift bank on a North Beach wharf. He extended loans to beleaguered residents “on a handshake” and helped revive the city.

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The innovative bank welcomed small borrowers who might otherwise have to use high-cost loan sharks. Most banks at the time regarded people with modest incomes as credit risks not worth the paperwork. But experience had taught Giannini otherwise: that working class people were no less likely to pay their debts than the wealthy.

Seeking more customers, the former produce salesman returned to his old haunts—the fertile valleys of California. He “walked in rows beside farmers engaged in plowing” to explain how bank branches make credit cheaper and more reliable. Town by town, he built the first statewide branching system in the nation.

On November 1, 1930, the Bank of Italy in San Francisco changed its name to Bank of America. The bank today has the same national bank charter number as Giannini’s old bank— #13044.

When A.P. Giannini died in 1949, the former single-teller office in North Beach claimed more than 500 branches and $6 billion in assets. It was then the largest bank in the world…

How a humane response to a community tragedy launched what became the biggest bank in the world: “Bank of America: The Humble Beginnings of a Large Bank.”

* Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

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As we learn from our elders, we might recall that it was on this date in 2006 that the first news stories based on the Panama Papers were published.  A cache of 11.5 million leaked documents that detailed financial and attorney–client information for more than 214,488 offshore entities, all from Panamanian law firm and corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca, the Panama Papers chronicled tax evasion, money laundering and fraud involving 12 current or former world leaders; 128 other public officials and politicians; and hundreds of celebrities, businessmen, and other wealthy individuals from over 200 countries.

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An online chat between Süddeutsche Zeitung reporter Bastian Obermayer and anonymous source John Doe

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“But the toaster was quite satisfied with itself, thank you”*…

 

Would a toaster still work in a freezer?  —My Brother, My Brother and MeEpisode 343, discussing a Yahoo Answers question

On a recent episode of Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy’s terrific advice podcast, My Brother, My Brother and Me, the brothers pondered a Yahoo Answers question about what would happen if you put a toaster inside a freezer. (The discussion comes around the 36-minute mark.)

They have a fun discussion of a few aspects of the problem before eventually moving on to the next question. Since they don’t really settle on a final answer, I thought we could help them out by taking a closer look at the physics of freezer toasters.

(A quick safety note: If you actually do this, keep in mind that the toaster may melt some of the ice in the freezer, leaving you with a running electrical appliance in a pool of water.)…

Another in Randall Munroe’s marvelous What If? series: “Toaster vs. Freezer.”

* Thomas M. Disch, The Brave Little Toaster

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As we cultivate curiosity, we might recall that President Abraham Lincoln wasn’t the only person to die in Ford’s Theater: it was on this date in 1893 that three interior floors of the building collapsed.  Ford had acquired his venue from a failed baptist Church; but shortly after its conversion, it burned to the ground.  Ford hastily rebuilt, and began to program performances like Our American Cousin, which featured the  famous actor– and assassin– John Wilkes Booth.

Following Lincoln’s death, the United States Government appropriated the theatre, (Congress payed Ford $88,000 in compensation), and an order was issued forever prohibiting its use as a place of public amusement.  In 1866, the theatre was taken over by the U.S. military… then in 1893, the front of the building gave way, killing 22 military clerks and injuring another 68… which led some to conclude that the former Church-turned-theater was cursed.  (A restored Ford’s Theater opened in 1968.)

Bodies being removed from Ford’s Theatre following the building’s collapse

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Written by LW

June 9, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Consider the furniture!”*…

 

Ikea is a behemoth. The home furnishing company uses 1 percent of the planet’s lumber, it says, and the 530 million cubic feet of wood used to make Ikea furniture each year pulls with its own kind of twisted gravity. For many, a sojourn to the enormous blue-and-yellow store winds up defining the space in which they sit, cook, eat and sleep.

All that wood is turned into furniture that tries to bring a spare, modern aesthetic to the masses. “We’re talking about democratizing design,” Marty Marston, a product public relations manager at Ikea, told me.

The furniture is also sold according to some unique economics. In many cases, Ikea’s famously affordable pieces get dramatically cheaper year after year. In others, prices creep up. In some cases, products disappear entirely. The result is an ever-evolving, survival-of-the-fittest catalog that wields an enormous amount of influence over residential interiors…

Pull up a chair at “The Weird Economics Of Ikea.”

* Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone

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As we avoid the meatballs, we might spare a thought for Sir Thomas Bouch; he died on this date in 1880.  A railway engineer and executive whose career began at age 17, Bouch was knighted for designing the two-mile-long Tay River Bridge— on which an estimated 75 people died when the bridge collapsed.  An enquiry found Bouch to be liable, by virtue of bad design and construction; he died four months after the verdict.

Bouch is thus also indirectly responsible for the best-known poem, “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” by the gentleman widely-regarded to have been the the worst published poet in British history, William Topaz McGonagall.

Sir Thomas Bouch

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Written by LW

October 30, 2016 at 1:01 am

“And worse I may be yet: the worst is not/ So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’.”*…

 

Terror attacks, Zika, Brexit, police shootings, Syria, Trump, record-hot temperatures, the losses of Prince and David Bowie—this has been one unrelenting turn around the calendar. Have terrifying events truly piled up on each other in 2016, in a way they didn’t in any other year in human history? Or is it impossible to judge the awfulness of a year while it’s still unfolding? Do we just notice negative happenings more these days because of our high levels of connectivity? And what does “worst year” even mean—“worst year” for Americans, for humanity, for the planet?…

In an effort to understand how to determine a “worst year” in history, Rebecca Onion asked ten historians to nominate their own “worst years” and to reflect on what constitutes a “really bad year.” Explore the bottom of the barrel at “Is 2016 the Worst Year in History?

* Shakespeare, King Lear

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As we hold our heads in our hands, we might spare a thought for Mark Antony; on this date in 30 BC– pretty surely his worst year ever– he won a minor victory over the forces of Octavian (Augustus) in the Battle of Alexandria.  But most of Antony’s army, cowed by the Roman forces, subsequently deserted, leading to his suicide.

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Written by LW

July 31, 2016 at 1:01 am

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