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JAPAN DISASTER FROM A TECHNOLOGICAL VIEW
Posted 15 Mar 2011 02:15:16 UTC

The following comes to us from one of our friends and correspondents in Japan. After reading, please do whatever you can to lend a hand.

*****

Just a few notes on the situation in Japan.

As you have heard, last week on Friday, in the middle of the afternoon, on a normal working day, we experienced the largest earthquake that I have ever experienced in living 20 years in Japan. It started like a "normal" quake but just kept on increasing in intensity for an extraordinary long time. I scurried across the floor to get my desk and put on my hardhat. The company provides us with hardhats and emergency supplies in a belt bag for just this eventuality.

Immediately, cell phone coverage was effectively dead as the circuits were overloaded. It remained so for several hours after the quake though it was possible to get through to numbers if you were lucky, though almost all calls ended in failure.

Our mobile phones' IP Internet service remained active and usable. Twitter became the most reliable communication method and realtime news about the situation came in all the time. I'm subscribed to several earthquake alert services on Twitter and quickly realized which area had been affected. Soon after the Tsunami warnings came in via mail, and Twitter followed with what seemed bizarre commentary from friends who were updating realtime about the amazing scenes they were watching live on TV.

After several strong aftershocks during the afternoon, we were faced with the problem of getting home. All trains in the Tokyo area had stopped and didn't plan to restart that day except, amazingly for the Shinkansen which started again within a few hours.

I posted my situation on Facebook and within minutes several friends offered me a place to stay the night. I managed to chat with one of my friends over Skype chat on my iPhone and headed off in his direction. Near his house I called him by voice on Skype on the iPhone.

The walk over to his apartment only took about 30 minutes but it was an amazing sight. Thousands of people were walking calmly along the sidewalks next to the main roads. The convenience stores were stripped bare of produce. All bentos, bread, pot noodles and other food stuffs were gone. Also mobile phone chargers and batteries were immediately sold out. All bicycle shops were sold out as people who had a long walk purchased one there and then to ride home on.

Mobile phone shops were kept open to allow people to charge their phones and NTT call boxes were set to allow free calls within Japan. Long lines were reported at the phone boxes as there are so few public call boxes left now in the streets and public places.

My home phone was not available as it is no longer provided via the analog copper cable but is an IP phone that is connected to the DSL fibre router provided by the phone company. During a power failure it is dead. We were warned about this when we subscribed for the fibre Internet service. I heard that landline to landline calls were getting through.

The following morning I searched on Google Realtime search for the name of the station and train lines nearby. From 1 minute old Twitter messages I could see people complaining about the 500m lines outside the stations. Other people who had boarded the train were tweeting how dangerously crowded the train was and how, once they had reached the platform it had taken them an hour to actually board the train.

I decided to sit it out and caught the train back later when it was less crowded, knowing in advance that the station was relatively normal.

Many people were able to receive Skype calls on their iPhones or PCs from relatives abroad but were unable to get through to their family in the same city due to problems with the mobile voice network. We also determined by coordinating over Twitter that SMSs were not getting though. Some test messages never got through at all.

One more piece of technology which has proven not to work well is the Earthquake pre-warning system. New mobile phones make a sound and display a message before incoming earthquakes as the warning can be broadcasted before the relatively slow moving ground waves arrive. There was no warning for the first very large quake, which was a total failure, and then random warnings throughout the night for relatively moderate quakes. When a whole room full of people's phones suddenly sound an alarm, it really adds to the fear factor.

On the subject of over-the-air broadcasts, Japanese TV excels at keeping people informed. Every few months we get a tsunami warning and a map is projected over the TV program showing the areas in danger. There are remotely controlled cameras in all the major ports that NHK controls which usually in the end show tsunamis of 10 cms or so rolling in. The aerial footage that we have all seen is from the TV company helicopters, it was broadcast live. It is routine for them to head out over the affected areas at the first sign of an earthquake.

Across the Kanto plain, where Tokyo and the surrounding areas lie, the US military broadcasts on 810AM. During emergencies English speakers can get information from this station. I haven't felt the need to listen to this, yet. NHK is running 24hr bilingual news on their net service.

Concerning the nuclear crisis, the French Embassy advised their citizens to leave Tokyo unless absolutely necessary whereas no notification has been given by others. Some non-Japanese friends have just left the country.

I'm following the news, and checking against outside experts' analysis. The information seems to match, but the explosions don't seem to be part of the expected failure plan. I guess there is not really a chance to test the design of a nuclear power station before it fails.

As far as I understand, the power plants were all automatically scram'ed (by the "safety control-rod axe man") i.e., made safe immediately. The reaction was dampened with the control rods but the problem was then to dissipate the remaining heat as the reaction subsides. At this point, the cooling and emergency cooling failed. The water started to get super-heated breaking down giving off hydrogen and oxygen which, when it was let out into the containment building to reduce pressure, led to the explosion. When the officials pumped seawater into the cooling system, you know they have given up on trying to save the reactor as it usually requires very pure water to avoid corrosion. I think, after that, you basically have to decommission the reactor. It is certainly a mess that will take years to clean up.

I'm generally in favour of nuclear power, but building power stations in such an earthquake and tsunami prone area does not seem wise. I don't understand why Japan doesn't build thermal power stations with the abundant heat from volcanic sources.

Also, it's well known that the nuclear industry in Japan is scandal ridden, so people are really looking closely at what they are saying and fact checking.

I will reserve panic to when the US withdraws its personnel en masse from their bases near Tokyo.

Due to the damage to the power stations, there are rolling blackouts scheduled but they haven't come into effect yet. It is uncertain how area by area blackouts will work. Will the trains stop? Will the ticket machines work? Will there be lights in the stations on lines that are running? No one knows. I expect Shibuya and Shinjuku will be dark tonight.

We found out the schedule for the blackouts from what was obviously a pdf created from a copy of a fax! After announcing the blackout, TEPCO (the electric company)'s website went down due to the load. I managed to get a copy from someone who had archived it on their public Dropbox folder. They announced the location on Twitter. I posted this to my mailing list for local English speakers and people were soon helping each other to translate it and tell others who were having difficulty with the Japanese.

Google's disaster relief page has also been useful and we were able to confirm that one friend in the badly affected area was alive by seeing a confirmation message posted by a family member on his entry in the people finder section.

Looking back, the thing that saved the day for me was TCP/IP. All services web, chat, ip-phone, mail, except the phone company's mail server, worked reliably. SMS and mobile voice phone cannot be relied upon even if their network is working.

Lastly, I must note that for Tokyo this quake was an inconvenience. For Northern Japan it is a disaster which has literally wiped whole communities off the map. Only the roads remain where bustling towns of many thousands stood hours previously. People have been rescued 10s of kilometers out to sea sitting on house roofs. The office I work for has branches around the country and as of Monday morning 200 people were not able to be accounted for. Please ask everyone to give generously to the international relief agencies that are supporting the efforts. Please give to those agencies that you already know, as several hundred fake domains were registered over the weekend in order to scam people into donating to fake relief sites.

"Off The Hook" listeners in Tokyo, at least, are doing fine.

Stuart - Tokyo

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