Showing posts with label tornado. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tornado. Show all posts

Friday, August 28, 2015

Toe's swellin' up - that mean's a hurricane's comin'

So Tropical Storm Erika is rapidly approaching my home in South Florida. Those who don't live on the Gulf Coast or the South East usually aren't familiar with the drama that is living through a hurricane. Its an emotional roller coaster similar to what war has been described as "boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror."

The hurricane comes at somewhat of an odd time; coming almost exactly three years after I was caught outside my house in the middle of a tornado which sent me flying into a wall after being hit by a wall of water. The tornado three years ago was the remnants of Tropical Storm Debbie, which was supposed to completely miss my neighborhood. The winds were so strong that they snapped a solid concrete bench in my back yard in half, right down to the re-bar.

A gentle summer breeze
In my front yard, the tornado ripped a 15-20 foot tree out by the roots, twisted it until it cracked, and laid the whole mess to rest on the hood of my car - missing the roof of my house by inches.

I was so psyched to see this
Miraculously I was able to salvage my laptop, which I had with me when I got hit by the storm. I got another couple of years of decent service out of it before the monitor hinges gave out (the computer itself still works). Here's hoping my new laptop survives Tropical Storm Erika with the same style.


SPECIAL POST-HURRICANE UPDATE: So as it turns out I was not sucked into the great beyond this storm. The day the hurricane was originally supposed to hit my house, it didn't even rain. The brunt of the storm hit the tropics and tragically killed 20 people in the island state of Dominica.

The awful consequences of Tropical Storm Erika for Dominica are worth considering in more detail. Those familiar with the fallout of hurricanes and near-hurricanes, as those of us doomed to live in Florida invariably are, have seen this pattern before: tropical paradises like Dominica invariably pay a much higher price to whatever it is that generates these storms than those of us in the US do. Its not just hurricanes, and its not just islands. There is a clear correlation between a country's wealth and the number of people in that country who die as a result of natural disasters. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put it: "Relative to low socioeconomic conditions, the impact of weather-related disasters in poor countries may be 20-30 times larger than in industrialized countries" ("Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability", James J McCarthy et al, Cambridge University Press;). Even though wealthy countries experience natural disasters at similar rates to poor countries, when wealthy countries get hit, less people die ("The Death Toll From Natural Disasters: The Role of Income, Geography, and Institutions", Matthew E. Kahn, Tufts University and Stanford University;) Meanwhile, the number of people killed by natural disasters has been decreasing steadily since 1900 (EM−DAT: The OFDA/CRED International Disaster Database, Université Catholique de Louvain;) - just as global economic growth has exploded over the same time period (World Bank National Accounts Data & OECD National Accounts data files; "The World Economy: a millennial perspective", Angus Maddison, Table B-18 World GDP, 20 Countries and Regional Totals, 0-1998 A.D.; "Contours of the World Economy, 1–2030 AD", Angus Maddison, Oxford University Press) The global reduction in fatalities is extremely not-worthy because the global population has been in the midst of geometric growth (“Catching Up with the Economy”, American Economic Review 89[1] [March], 1–21, Robert Fogel, 1999) - it would be reasonable to assume that with more people on the planet, with the resulting issues of population density, more people would die as the result of storms and earthquakes but in fact the opposite has happened!

Whether we look at the situation globally or country-to-country, economic growth results in fewer people dying due to extreme weather events. And we aren't talking about the fabled "1%", either. These results are remarkable because the deal with huge numbers of people. Poor people in wealthy countries are safer from natural disasters than middle class people from poor countries. The difference in the rate is not explainable by jet-setters who have their own private bunkers to ride out Category 5 storms. The difference is the result of numerous factors, but leading among them is, in wealthy countries, the wide availability of housing using sturdy, reliable materials. In the United States and Europe, even homeless shelters have roofs made of concrete, wood and ceramic and not branches, leaves and mud.

Why should this consideration give us pause? The debate over global warming, more recently referred to simply as climate change, is an issue of some prominence both socially and politically. Among the topics of contention in this debate is the notion that global warming either is currently causing or will soon cause natural disasters that are either more frequent, more deadly or both. Another point of no small controversy is that, in order to prevent global warming, some social mechanism must be put into action to reduce the emission of carbon and other so-called "greenhouse gases" by human beings. For many, the only way to accomplish this carbon reduction effectively is to reduce the amount of economic growth. Those supporting this argument use the same economic growth measurements I have posted above and, rather than drawing a correlation between a reduced number of natural disaster fatalities, they draw a correlation between increased carbon emissions. I agree with them on this latter point. Increased economic growth has historically and will for the foreseeable future result in the increased emission of carbon. More wealth means more automobiles, it means electricity, air-conditioning and it also means the consumption of more meat. All of these produce greenhouse gas emissions (farm animals produce methane).

Those who wish to control carbon emissions through the control of the economy go a bit further than simply demarcating a correlation between economic growth and carbon emissions. Supporters of this view seek to reduce economic growth to reduce carbon emissions - either directly, through some profound change in government, or indirectly, through government decrees that result in slowed economic growth (usually in the form of a tax, but other measures could be taken, such as tariffs or increases in regulation, that could reliably reduce economic activity).

The point I hope to make here is a small one, but nonetheless I feel it is an important point. Before I make the point, though, I wish to point out that I am not a "denier" of climate change or global warming. I agree with the overall point that greenhouse gasses can harm the environment, and will likely result in the warming of the planet. The devil, though, as always, remains in the details. I do, however, take issue with what the correct course of action is in the face of this dilemma. I also resent the implication, quite popular, that the fact of climate change demands a specific course of action, and that course of action is beyond dispute or further consideration. Regardless of the credentials of the person making such a demand, there is nothing "scientific" about a non-sequitur. In fact, appeals to authority are very commonly the purview of religion.

My point is merely this: calls to stifle economic growth cannot be justified using the threat of natural disasters. If our primary goal is saving human lives, the evidence is in favor of increasing economic growth rather than decreasing it: particularly if such events will become more frequent. Consider the following graph illustrating the presumed death toll fluctuations given a variable per-capita GDP:


Predicted Annual Death From Natural Disasters
GDP Per-Capita Expected Deaths Probability Death equals zero
$2,000 893 0.275
$8,000 412 0.279
$14,000 189 0.286

NOTE: In this table, population is set at 100 million and the year is set to 1990. The
predictions are based on the actual count of natural disasters that a
nation experiences.

The table above presumes one country for one year. These are non-trivial amounts of human life we are talking about here.

At issue is scarcity. We must contend with the fact that there is a finite amount of resources and a finite amount of human labor and ingenuity. When we put an absolute value on resolving a single issue, say global warming, and say that all other issues must take a back seat to this one - which is exactly what reducing the global economy is doing - there will be consequences that are unforeseen, or inconvenient. Or, as in this case, deadly.

There is a conflict in environmentalist thought - between the priorities of conservation and the needs of human beings on the other. I do not believe that this automatically makes all environmentalist appeals irrelevant. For example, no matter how convenient and efficient inhumane factory farming practices are I believe there is a strong case for abolishing such practices. However, we ought to be clear that this tension exists between human needs on the one hand and the values of environmentalism on the other. When we ignore that tension we invite the sort of unforeseen but easily foreseeable consequences I have outlined above.

This is not the first time this has happened. One of the more devastating and cruel policies to come out of the White House in recent memory was the implementation during the Bush administration of a subsidy for the production of crops for ethanol. Over time it became obvious to all those who approached the topic with even a modicum of objectivity that ethanol has been a failure in its stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions: while ethanol burns somewhat "cleaner" than regular gasoline, producing ethanol has an enormous energy cost which, at the absolute best, makes the matter a wash. Apart from that, mixed ethanol blends which have been mandated for use across the United States cause damage over time to the automobiles that are forced to use them; manufacturing cars, engines and parts costs energy, which in turn results in increased carbon emissions. But that wasn't the bad part. The bad part was that the subsidies led to farmers growing crops for the production of ethanol rather than for grain. The farmers could not be blamed for doing so: they stood to make substantial profits from selling their crops for ethanol. All of those farmers making the switch meant that there were less farmers to produce grain. The demand for grain, however, didn't go away - it continued to rise with the growth in population.

As anyone who stayed awake for the first 30 minutes of a course in any economics subject can tell you, when you reduce the supply and increase the demand, the price increases. And thats what happened. The price of grain shot through the roof. For those of us in wealthy countries, this made absolutely no difference. No one noticed. People don't eat "grain" in the US. We eat hamburgers. It was those living in the poorest countries, living on absolute subsistence wages, or who grew other crops that they must trade for food, that were devastated by the increased grain prices. For the world's destitute, food is the primary expense. For the world's destitute, meat is not on the menu - grain is the primary staple.

And so a good-intentioned policy to combat global warming, justified in part on saving poor people from the ravages of global warming, made global warming worse - and starved the poorest among us. We should think about these things when we think of Tropical Storm Erika, and we should not repeat the same mistakes.

Monday, July 2, 2012

How My Laptop Survived a Tornado (Or, Buy a Toshiba Satellite C655)

Tropical Storm Debby recently made my acquaintance at my humble home here in South Florida. The storm itself was a non-starter, but apparently the outer strands of it spawned a series of tornadoes across Florida last Sunday. While I am pretty handy with a computer, when it comes to un-nerd-related topics I am oblivious, and on Sunday I was unaware of Debby or the tornado warning that had been issued. It was sunny outside that day - if I had heard something I would have written it off as a false alarm anyway. 

My home is on a lake and surrounded by trees. My favorite part of the house is the expansive back porch. The porch is screened and runs the entire length of the house - we've installed a hammock whose awesomeness cannot be translated into English as well as a large hand crafted wooden table. I tend to do my drinking in the hammock while whittling away the hours with a great view of the lake. The table is for when I actually need to get some work done or eat something. Between the two I spend more time on the porch then in the house as befits any Southern gentleman. 

So it was on Sunday I was doing some research on the native data deduplication capabilities that are included in Windows Server 2012 (a topic that will most certainly be explained more here soon), and doing so at the foot of my large wooden table on my screened-in porch with my Toshiba Satellite C655. 
Behold, the Facebook Machine (also includes pornography)
It started drizzling, but a fresh rain only enhances the porch experience under normal circumstances. The slight rain continued, but was not enough to scare off my intrepid and adopted cat BB, so no big deal, I thought (What the initials stand for has been the subject of much debate over the years. The only answer I am aware of that is not NSFW is Big Boy).

The rain continued and started to pick up. The wind started to send the rain sideways through the screen a bit. The screens run the entire porch except the connection with the house, so three walls are entirely screened with a a stone ledge on the bottom that runs about waist high. Because BB spends most of his time on the ledge under the screens, this gave him a face full of water and sent him scurrying inside. What does he know, I thought. His brain is the size of a walnut. I'm staying outside.

Moments after I had concluded this conversation with myself, it started. There was a sound like a freight train engine, only louder, close to the decibel range of gunshots. This wasn't just thunder - it didnt stop after a moment and it was much louder than anything I've ever heard (and as a Florida native, this isn't my first time dealing with bad weather). I decided it was time to go inside, and closed my laptop while I started to stand up. 

A wall of water came through the screens. A solid wall from top to bottom - there was so much water it could not have just been rain. Later I would examine the wreckage and reason that the tornado must have touched down on the lake, causing a tidal-wave effect (the lake shore is about 20 feet from my house). At the time I had no opportunity to think. The water somehow came straight through all three walls at the same time. I had my hands on my laptop when it hit me. The force knocked me to the floor and back a few feet, sliding me across the stone floor and leaving me stunned for a moment. I lost my grip on the laptop, and it hit the ground with as much force as I did, on its corner, leaving its top somewhat ajar and not completely shut. 

My first thought, of course, was - Not my computer damn it - and I grabbed the laptop, hugging it to my chest after crawling underneath my giant table. The wind had shut the door to the house behind me and so I could not get inside without standing up and using the knob. While the tidal wave was over, it had ripped the screens out of the walls. The wind remained, and with such force that small objects were being picked up and tossed around as if by a ghost. The wind was so strong, in fact, that standing up was impossible. Even if I was able to make it to my feet somehow, I would have been sent sliding across the floor, or worse, while I struggled with the knob one of the flying objects might have hit me in the head. I doubted I would even be able to get it open with that much force acting against me. I'm an engineer. We're not known for upper body strength.

So for what must have been a minute or two but seemed like an eternity, I stayed underneath the table in a near fetal position, gripping my computer as we were both soaked with water, and wondered what sort of grizzly death this would result in. Would I be sucked out by the storm like Dorothy? Would a cinder block be blown through and crack my skull? There is a small area where the washer and dryer are kept near the porch - would the storm sever one of the high voltage lines connected to them, electrocuting me? 

This was not the relaxing time I had come to expect to be provided by my porch. 

Suddenly the wind shifted directions. Now everything that wasnt bolted down was being sucked out of the porch; glasses, ash tray, potted plants. The wind change also resulted in the door to the house being thrown open. This is my chance to save the computer, I thought. There is no way it is bootable after this but I can probably salvage the drive. 

It was then that I perfectly executed a tuck and roll procedure as I was trained to at boot camp.

Haha, no that is not entirely true. I pain stakingly crawled to the door like a terrified infant. I just narrowly made it through before the winds changed again and slammed the door shut behind me. At that point I was able to get back to my feet and waited out the rest of the storm in my bathroom with BB.

Hours later the storm abated, and I walked outside, blinking in the now stark sunlight after hiding in darkness in the bathroom, to take an inventory of what was left of my home. Among the damage was a 30 foot tall tree that was snapped in half and was conveniently placed on top of the house while blocking the front door entirely.

No big whoop
A table and bench set made of solid concrete that sits between my house and the lake had been split into pieces after the storm smashed the bench and table into each other. A patio umbrella was turned inside out and was left tangled in my clothesline. 

The C655 laughes at your weakness, concrete
I went back inside to inspect the final casualty, my Toshiba Satellite C655. I grabbed a rag and toweled off what remained of the water that had knocked it onto the stone floor of my patio. I figured I would boot it up, in the hopes the inevitable post error would give me some indication of what would not be salvageable.

I hit the power button and ... nothing. A black screen. Great, there may not be anything left worth taking. I turned the computer around to get a look at what size screwdriver I would need to look inside when I noticed the battery was partially unseated. So I plugged it back in and attempted to boot again, fully expecting the same lack of response. 

Thats when the miracle happened. The Toshiba Satellite C655 booted perfectly, I was prompted to select whether to boot into safety mode, opted not to and Windows loaded perfectly. All of my data survived nature's attempt to get me to start keeping backups. 

To recap - this computer was thrown against a solid stone floor from a height of four feet. It was covered in water from a mini tidal wave. It was outside during a tornado that smashed concrete. And it survived. It didn't just survive - it was completely unharmed, not even a noticeable scratch where it hit the ground. I have had laptops that did not survive spilled cups of coffee that cost twice what I paid for the C655.

So +1 for you Toshiba, for building mankind's first Tornado proof laptop under $500.

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