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Disasters, Arrogance and Greed: From The Titanic to Fukushima (and the one person who could have made a difference)

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The wounds
suffered by the survivors and shown by the bodies of the dead are of a shocking
description. In some cases the flesh is torn in shreds, exposing the bones
beneath; in others the eyes are forced from their sockets; in others the victim
looks as though he has been plunged into boiling water and almost every body
shows purple spots as if it had been forcibly pelted with fragments of stone
and iron

unsigned description of the 1896 tsunami that
hit north-Eastern Japan with a 110-foot wall
of water, killing more than 28,000.


Accidents are rarely
accidental. Paradoxically, there is almost always one person who could have
spoken up courageously and prevented a catastrophe. This article explores why
they didn't do that. The tragic and avoidable accidents from recent history,
that I describe here, are the result of various combinations of cost-cutting
for profit, risk-taking for fame, or ignorance of the complexities of modern

In his wonderful book
The Black Swan, Nissam Taleb vigorously points out that leaders and
planners tend to underestimate and neglect the potentially devastating
calamities that can occur as the result of highly improbable events until
they finally do occur.
Today we are seeing the entire country of Japan
brought to its knees because some planner didn't take account of the possible occurrence of giant tsunami
waves that do occur, but less often than once in a century.  Anyone who has lived as long as I have
has learned to create an internal "payoff matrix" before he leaps to the next
great opportunity. This is a statistical tool that is useful in keeping you
alive. You estimate "what is the worse thing and the best thing that could
happen" in this situation. And then multiply each by the probably of its
occurrence. For example, the upside might be an unbelievably exotic and
romantic adventure with a new and desirable partner! And the downside might be
the remote possibility of AIDS. The analyst learns to avoid attractive
opportunities like this, in which the payoff matrix contains a +++ in one of
the squares, and a "minus-infinity" (death) in the other square — even if the
probability is really pretty small. If the payoff is national destruction and
calamity, we don't build the nuclear power plant eighteen feet above high-tide,
even though the twenty-foot tsunami comes only once a century. And above all.
We don't put the back-up generator in the basement!

The story I present here is about a world of calamitous accidents, all of
which could have been avoided. They represent a grisly and unnecessary loss of
life in addition to the loss of many billions of dollars. Perhaps you recall
that, before he resigned — under pressure — George W. Bush's Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told Congress that "mistakes were made" in the firing of U.S. Attorneys. Senator John McCain used the
same locution in describing the conduct of the war in Iraq. The idea that "mistakes
were made and lies were told" is a popular distancing device-a Nixon-era political
contrivance to indicate that something went terribly wrong, but "It wasn't me.
I didn't do it." (This last quotation appears on tee-shirts available from your
local bail bondsman.) In the tragedies I will describe here, the mistakes and
the lies belong to the rich and powerful. The dismaying result is that none of
the perpetrators went to prison-which differs from the case of the bondsman's
usual customer, who tends to be poor and disenfranchised.

I am well aware of the
problems faced by men and women in the trenches, who see something going wrong,
but cannot get a hearing for their concerns. Karen Silkwood at the Kerr-McGee
nuclear plant comes to mind. You will remember that she was mysteriously
murdered as she was on her way to a press conference to talk about negligence
at the nuclear plant. So this is serious business.

As a physicist with a professional
career spanning forty-five years in research, development, production and
aerospace, I am aware of the dangers in high-level undertakings. I began work
as a researcher and pioneer in the development of the laser in the late
1950s — recruited out of graduate school at Columbia University to work on the
exciting laser project while it was still unfolding in the mind of Gordon
Gould, its creator. In my last industrial job, I was a project manager standing
on the tarmac at Kennedy Space Center measuring the winds along the space
shuttle's trajectory — using a high-power laser system I developed with my team
at Lockheed Missiles & Space. So this is a high-risk world I understand.
Since 1962 I have ridden my motorcycle through the foothills and potholes of
Silicon Valley, while working for Sylvania, Lockheed and Stanford Research

There is a
category of mishaps called "normal accidents," in which a tightly-coupled
complex system experiences multiple unexpected component failures. The initial
phases of the catastrophic failure of Three Mile Island nuclear power plant was
of this type. It wasn't until the operators made some bad decisions that the
situation became hopeless. In the end, even with clueless operators, a total
meltdown was avoided. With modern technology and massive redundancy, these
types of accidents are mercifully rare. In aerospace we have an expression that
I have heard many times, "We can make the system foolproof. But we can't make
it damn-fool proof." For example, if a modern airplane's electrical or
hydraulic system fails, the backup systems will usually come to the rescue even
for such a major systems breakdown. However, if the pilot is intoxicated, or
has a stewardess on his lap (as in one of our examples), the situation is
usually beyond repair. I hear you saying, "A thing like that could never
happen." But we are talking here about world-class accidents that did in fact
occur. They require world-class stupidity or arrogance for their occurrence. (Just
think, if Monica Lewinsky had chosen to have her now famous blue dress
dry-cleaned to remove all traces of the president's DNA, the forty-third President
of the United States would have been Al Gore instead of George W. Bush, and the
world would be a vastly different place than it is today — no war in Iraq, etc.)

I will briefly summarize the ten cases I have
chosen to present, illustrating the extent to which greed and ignorance are
sufficient to bring down even the largest edifice or most foolproof
contraption. It does not require an earthquake nor a bolt of lightning.

and Arrogance:
One of the most famous disasters of our time is the 1912
sinking of the ocean liner Titanic during a moonless midnight race to set a
trans-Atlantic speed record. The ship roared at its top speed through the
icebergs of the North Atlantic, while other nearby ships waited for sunrise to
reveal the iceberg hazards. Meanwhile, six warnings were received by the
Titanic's radio operator, but the captain was too busy entertaining high
society passengers to get the message. The ship struck the iceberg just before midnight,
with the loss of fifteen-hundred lives in the freezing water. The calamity was
exacerbated by the fact that the ship had only the minimum allowable number of
lifeboats, to allow dancing on the top (lifeboat) deck! (Interestingly, the
entire event was foretold fourteen years earlier by Morgan Robertson's 1898
book The Wreck of the Titan, Or Futility. Robertson, an American writer,
correctly prophesied the length, displacement, number of waterproof
compartments and ultimate fate of the then unconceived and unbuilt ship.)

in January:
To my mind the most bizarre of the calamities fitting my greed
and ignorance model is the great two-million gallon Boston Molasses Catastrophe
of 1919. The fifty-foot high, ninety foot diameter tank filled with molasses was
designed by Mr. Arthur Jell, the chief accountant of the U.S. Industrial
Alcohol Company (USIA), and built in one of Boston's most crowded slums. There
was no building inspection conducted, because the Boston building department
was convinced that this enormous structure shouldn't be considered a building.
Its continual leakage of molasses from all its plates was dealt with by a coat
of molasses-colored paint. Finally, in a rush for one more shipment of molasses
to the rum makers before Prohibition became the law of the land, the tank was
filled to capacity. Although there is nothing as slow as molasses in January,
the tank collapsed at noon, flooding the streets of Boston's North End with a
twenty foot wave of sticky, gooey death — killing twenty, injuring more than a
hundred, and taking down the elevated railroad tracks. After six years of
litigation, USIA was found guilty of negligence and fined $600.000, equivalent
to about $30 million today.

Tragic Weakness in the Chain of
One of the events with which I had some personal concern was the
explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger, launched with its attendant rockets on a
clear cold morning of January 28, 1986. It was the 25th shuttle into space-the tenth
flight of Orbiter Challenger. This was one of the most publicized launches
because it was the first time that a civilian — a school teacher, Christa
McAuliffe — was going into space and she was invited to speak live during President Reagan's state of
the Union address. The launch of Challenger had been delayed five times due to
bad subfreezing weather at the Cape. And January 28 was by fifteen degrees the
coldest day on  which NASA had ever
launched. Not surprisingly this launch was decried beforehand by all the
experts. The Lockheed engineers measured the temperature of the O-rings and
found them too cold to contain the hot exhaust gas. They would not give NASA a variance to launch. Neither would the
design engineer, Roger Boisjoly (now a celebrated
whistleblower), at Morton Thiokol who designed the rocket and
containment system. Finally, under considerable pressure, NASA's administrator
William Graham (presidential campaign advisor to Reagan who appointed him to
NASA) called the president of Thiokol and ordered him to provide a variance to
launch, or risk losing their billion dollar contract. In the conflagration that
followed, the Challenger's seven crew members were all killed when the ship
exploded at thirty-five thousand feet. The flames burned through the frozen
O-ring, while the forces of a surprising and unseen 100-knot windshear ripped
the craft apart. My job became the investigation of the part windshear played
in the crash.

Culture of NASA:
Similarly, the disintegration of Space Shuttle Columbia, on
February 1, 2003 was probably an avoidable tragedy. Politics and NASA's
head-in-the-sand approach trumped obtaining launch damage data from classified
Air Force spy satellites. A suitcase-sized piece of insulation foam had been
photographed as it fell from the fuel tank and hit the wing of the shuttle at
launch. But the extent of the damage from this five pound missile traveling at
five-hundred miles per hour was never assessed. We all recall that Columbia
broke up fourteen days later upon re-entry, as super-heated plasma entered a
hole in the left wing punched by the falling foam, killing its seven astronaut
crew. If a damage assessment had been made in a timely fashion, as was
desperately attempted by one NASA engineer, investigators believe that the ship
might have been repaired in flight by the crew, or rescued by another shuttle
that was on the pad almost ready for launch. But that was not the  top-down NASA culture at the time. The
engineer was not allowed to send his info up the line.

The nuclear melt-down movie The China Syndrome was released just before
the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, which occurred at
4AM, on March 31, 1979. The Karen Silkwood case is
one of the sources for the movie. Silkwood had discovered evidence of falsified
quality control data at the Kerr-McGee plant near Crescent, Oklahoma
where she worked as a technician, and like Hector in
the movie, she fell victim to a supposed accident as someone rammed her car off
the road from behind while she was on her way to deliver the evidence to the
press. I saw the film the day before the accident. And when I heard of
the disaster on the radio the next morning, I though it was a movie trailer. (These
things always happen on the graveyard shift — in the industry there is a
phenomenon known as "wide awake at 3AM," after a book of the same name.) The
near melt-down of this 850-megawatt power reactor outside Harrisburg,
Pennsylvania was contained by the thick steel containment vessel (unlike
Chernobyl). The reactor spontaneously shut itself down ("scrammed") in response
to spurious internal signals — which also disastrously shut down the cooling
water pumps. Many books, and tens of thousands of pages of findings have been
written on this immensely complicated accident which released 43,000 curies of
radioactive krypton into the atmosphere — luckily with no fatalities. From my
point of view, the principle cause of the accident was not the inappropriate
action of the two sleepy operators who closed off the cooling water when they
should have opened it up. It was that they simply didn't know how to respond to
two pressure gauges giving contradictory readings. In my opinion they just
guessed wrong, although the President's Report blames them. The other
contributing factor in play here was a
major cost-cutting operation to reduce maintenance costs
by Metropolitan
Edison, who was the owner and operator of the plant. For unknown reasons the
two large valves that control the back-up cooling water had been manually
closed two days before the accident, and evidently nobody noticed! If the
valves had been properly inspected and opened there would have been no calamity, even with the accidental shut
down. Obviously, the technicians operating the system could also have been
better trained. As with most accidents, there were numerous factors-and
numerous mistakes. Unfortunately, reactor operators save lots of money by
eliminating inspections.  But here
we are thirty years later.

York Times, May 8, 2011


            Critics Say Watchdog Is Too Close To


In the  fall of 2007, workers at the Byron
nuclear power plant in Illinois (just outside Chicago) were using a wire brush
to clean a badly corroded steel pipe-one in a series that circulate cooling water
to essential emergency equipment — when something unexpected happened: the brush
poked through. The resulting leak caused a 12-day shutdown of the two reactors
for repairs. The plant's owner, the Exelon Corporation, had long
known that corrosion was thinning most of these pipes. But rather than fix
them, it repeatedly lowered the minimum thickness it deemed safe. By the time
the pipe broke, Exelon had declared that pipe walls just three-hundredths of
an inch thick
— less than one-tenth the original minimum thickness — would be
good enough. [This is also not an "accident."]

Pass the
Several years after Three-Mile Island, on April 26, 1986, at 1:30 AM
reactor number four at the Chernobyl power plant in the northern Ukraine
exploded releasing into the midnight air four-hundred times more radiation than
the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It would require the resettlement of more
than 300,000 people, and is thought to have caused 4000 additional cancer
deaths. The explosion blew the 2000-ton concrete top off the intensely hot
reactor, spreading debris over hundreds of miles-because there was no containment vessel of any kind for the reactor!
(Who needs a expensive steel containment for a well tested reactor?) A safety
test had been planned for the reactor the previous day, but it could not be
concluded before the next shift. To briefly summarize the Chernobyl Reactor
disaster: Late that night two technicians decided to do the safety test
themselves, which involved carefully reducing
the cooling water
to the reactor — always a delicate operation. Next, one
must even more carefully withdraw two of the control rods while
monitoring the reactor power.  (Incidentally, this reactor was three times the size of Three
Mile Island-several gigawatts.) As the two techs huddled over the
still-surviving scribbled notes that had been left for them, the reactor
violently spiked in energy and heated up so exponentially that the control rods
could not be pushed back into place. Thus the core overheated, melted and went
critical. Once again, wide awake at 3AM — this time at 1:30AM. We know the tragic
end. (In my experience, over several years in various Russian labs, nothing
happened without a couple glasses of vodka-although that doesn't usually appear
in the accident report.)

Unfortunate Nearsighted Telescope:
The $2.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope
was carried into orbit by the Space Shuttle Discovery in April, 1990. Hubble's
position outside the Earth's atmosphere allows it to take extremely
sharp images with almost no background light. The mirror and optical
systems of the telescope were the most crucial and complex part, and were
designed to exacting specifications. Construction of the eight-foot mirror by
the highly regarded optical company, Perkin-Elmer began in 1979, starting with an
optical blank manufactured by Corning from their ultra-low expansion glass. Within weeks
of the 1990 launch of the telescope, the returned images showed that there was
a serious problem with the focusing of the optical system. Analysis of the
flawed images showed that the cause of the problem was that the primary mirror
had been ground to the wrong shape.

A commission
headed by Lew
, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was
established to determine how the error could have arisen. The Allen Commission
found that the main null corrector lens — a device used to measure the
exact shape of the mirror, had been assembled incorrectly by the optical shop
at P&E fabricating the giant mirror. But luckily the Quality Assurance
department had its own precision test lens to evaluate the mirror. When the
mirror got to QA it failed to show the proper curvature. From this point on, we
can say "mistakes were made": Perkin-Elmer was way behind schedule and over
budget on the mirror. So, rather than try to reconcile the two discrepant
measurements they said-you guessed it-"let's go with the guys who made the mirror.
To hell with QA." Thus the nearsighted Hubble Space Telescope mirror was
shipped to Lockheed for assembly and integration into the space craft module.      

optical shop performed their integration and proposed to test the telescope
from end-to-end. NASA's cost cutting management said, "Don't test it, just
launch it," even though the mirror failed some of the maker's tests! Lockheed's
optical shop eventually had to design corrective lenses for the Hubble, which
now allows it to take the beautiful and inspiring pictures we have been looking
at for the past decade. My Lockheed colleague Paul Robb, was head of the Optics
Department at that time, and he was able to fill me in on the gory details.

to Crash:
I joined Lockheed Research and Development Laboratory in
September 1985, with the intention of investigating the use of lasers to detect
windshear in front of aircraft to prevent crashes from that source. In August
1995 a Lockheed L-1011 crashed at Dallas-Fort Worth airport due to windshear,
killing 130 on board. The last words from the pilot as he headed into the
torrential down-burst were, "I guess we're going to get the plane washed." So,
Lockheed and NASA were both very supportive of my recently proposed (1986) premonitory
program. While building my laser wind sensor hardware, I had also
carefully examined several windshear plane crashes. The karmic crash of
Northwest Flight 255 on August 16, 1987, which killed all but one of its 156
passengers, was one of the most shocking to me.

I call this crash karmic because
of the very large number of factors all contributing to the tragic event. (In
Buddhism, one of the understandings of karma, is the immutable law of cause and
effect. If one makes bad decisions his whole life, then he is going to suffer.)
The McDonnell-Douglas MD-82 had been scheduled to fly from Detroit to Los
Angeles with a layover in Phoenix. It was 8:00 in the evening and the
totally-filled aircraft was sitting on the tarmac where the temperature was still
eighty-five degrees. (A full aircraft and hot weather both require extra energy
and lift to get off the ground.) But, unfortunately the aircraft was ordered to
move from the longest runway to a shorter runway, due to crowding. As the plane
taxied to the new runway, the pilot and a stewardess who was also in the
cockpit were engaged in an energetic hopeful conversation about their
forthcoming layover at Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix. Apparently, to get rid of
the annoying annunciator voice which kept calling out "Flaps. Flaps" the pilot
tripped the circuit breaker which controlled the system that alerts the pilot
to the fact that he is taxiing without flaps, which are of course essential for
takeoff. So enthralling was their rendezvous conversation, that the
pilot neglected to perform the checklist before take off, nor did he remember
to set the flaps. The reason that I was reading this fateful cockpit
voice-recorded transcript (later sanitized in the published NTSB version), was
because there had been a twenty knot windshear at the end of the runway, which
further contributed to the crash. I am sorry to say that the happy couple in
the cockpit, along with all but one of the passengers and other crew were dead
forty-five seconds after the last of their giggles.

Apogee of Greed and Arrogance:
Enron's iconic fifty-story oval glass
headquarters in Houston is emblematic of the house of cards that Enron
comprised. It was a virtual company with virtual profits, featuring fictitious special purpose entities (SPEs)
generally located off shore. I'm sure you are aware that it was the Enron
scandal has led to the revival of the term "Ponzi Scheme." They managed to
control vast amounts of U.S. energy generation capacity, causing unnecessary
brown-outs in California, and the subsequent recall and dismissal of its
governor, Gray Davis. Without Enron, there
would have been no Governor Schwarzenegger.
The Directors of Enron have
been accused by members of the US Congress and others of operating a vast fraud
where the primary return to the upper management was from recruiting and
inventing new businesses rather than from the sale of a product or making a
profit. This kind of pyramid strategy is often referred to as a Ponzi Scheme-named after Charles Ponzi,
an immigrant to Boston in 1919, who made millions in the 1920's before he was
sent to prison. The distinguishing feature of a Ponzi type pyramid is that old
investors are paid back with funds received from new victims. As long as the
fraud continues to grow, the investors are not usually aware that their money
has been misappropriated. Most Ponzi schemes are uncovered when new
"investors" can no longer be located. In the case of Enron, obvious
mistakes were made, and lies were told. The whole massively unstable edifice
came catastrophically tumbling down when it became known to the share holders
that there were no actual profits at
Enron. The corporation collapsed just like a nuclear power plant suddenly going
critical. It eventually became clear that the whole thing was an illusion.
Enron was a fifteen-year adventure with a huge and complex organization based
on greed and corruption. The company lost $50 billion in its last month and
went bankrupt in 2000-causing tragic financial losses to its thousands of
workers whose pensions had became worthless. It also destroyed the esteemed
accounting firm of Arthur Anderson, who had used its prestige to endorse
Enron's lies.

Didn't know It Was A Bubble?:
Perhaps closest in memory is the Great Crash
of 2008. After 150 years of distinguished service Lehman Brothers went bankrupt
while trying to entice customers to invest in the exciting $45 trillion
worldwide opportunity of credit default swaps-betting against their
worthless bonds
. Financial guru Alan Greenspan recently said before

"I have made a mistake… I have found a
flaw in my fundamental ideology, markets don't correct themselves. Those of us
who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect
shareholders' equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief!"

By implication,
Ayn Rand, Greenspan's mentor, was wrong about the desirability of totally free
markets. In 1958, I was deeply engrossed in the mid-Manhattan salon of the
Russian-born novelist and Libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand — which was held in
her luxurious apartment. Alan Greenspan was also a regular — and cranky – 
attendee, already clad in his ubiquitous pin-striped suit. In a letter to the
editor of the New York Times about her just-published, mammoth novel of
capitalism, he wrote, "Atlas Shrugged is a celebration of life and
happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose
and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they

Traditionally, banks lend money to homeowners
for their mortgages and retain the risk of default, called credit risk.
However, due to twenty-first century financial innovations, banks can now sell rights
to the mortgage payments and pass-on related credit risk to other banks and
securities dealers through a process called securitization.
Until 2000, the Roosevelt era Glass-Steagall Act prohibited banks from
offering investment, commercial
, or insurance services. But the Republican driven Gramm-Leach-Bliley
of 1999 allows commercial and investment banks to consolidate and create
out of their junk mortgages. That is, your local bank can now
wrap up hundreds of worthless home loans in tinfoil, tie them with a ribbon,
and call them securities. A bank no longer cares whether or not the borrower
will ever pay back the loan, because it will soon be bundled and sold to
someone else. These are called "ninja" loans — no income, no job, no assets. This new "originate to
distribute" banking model means credit risk has been distributed broadly
to investors around the world, with a series of consequential impacts.
Economists have criticized Texas senator Phil Gramm's deregulation Act as a
principal contribution to the on-going subprime mortgage
financial crisis, arguing that the "bail out" amounts to corporate
for financial institutions and a moral
that will make taxpayers pay dearly-$700 billion so far. Banks used
to hold their loans, and therefore made sure that they were backed by
collateral and the borrower's ability to pay the mortgage. It is especially
interesting to note that in the financial meltdown of 2008, the U.S. Treasury
Secretary, Henry Paulson decided to give several billion dollars to his old
firm, Goldman-Sacks, while letting his old adversary Lehman Brothers go
bankrupt with no financial aid what-so-ever. The men who sold the worthless
bonds, called the transactions IBG/YBG trades-I'll be gone/you'll be gone!  Such is the kingdom of heaven. But
disasters have always been with us.

The Hundred-Year Black Swan: One final disaster flashback. Consider the 1896 tsunami that swept
into and destroyed a good part of North-eastern Japan in 1896, with 28,000+
fatalities. This 100-foot high wall of water blasted the harbor at a 100 miles
per hour and swept many miles inland. As I was completing this article, we have
been greeted with the March 11, 2011 disastrous breaching of the seawall at
Japan's Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant in North Eastern Japan. Not far from the
1896 disaster just described.

The Fukushima
reactor was built five-and-a-half meters above sea level in a location whose
average tsunami had been eight meters high for the past thousand years. And of
course the generators to supply cooling water were installed in the basement. It's
known that Japan's nuclear regulators and the operator of the crippled
Fukushima reactors were warned that a tsunami could overwhelm the plant's
defenses, but they failed to acknowledge the threat. The minutes from a
government committee show that the Trade Ministry dismissed evidence two years
before the disaster from geologists that the power station's stretch of coast
was overdue for a giant wave. Tokyo
Electric Power Co.
engineers didn't heed lessons from the 2004 tsunami off
Indonesia that swamped a reactor 2,000 kilometers away in India, even as they advised
the nuclear industry on coping with the dangers.

Electric's Dai-Ichi plant successfully withstood the impact of Japan's record March
11 earthquake
, only for a wall of water to knock out generators
needed to keep its reactors cool. The cost of the miscalculation is still
mounting as explosions and fires at the plant cause radiation leaks that force
the evacuation of more than 200,000 people and contaminated drinking water and
food supplies.

the Japanese government's failure to foresee the risk posed by tsunamis to
nuclear power plants is the country's national report on nuclear safety, filed
with the International Atomic Energy Agency in September 2010. The 194-page
document discusses detailed earthquake mitigation measures 74 times. Tsunamis
are mentioned twice, both times in reference to a working group studying the
issue. Furthermore Tokyo Electric's sea-wall defenses for the Dai-Ichi plant
were built under the assumption that the coastline on which it sat wasn't prone
to tsunamis higher than 5.5 meters, said Yoshimi Hitosugi, a Tokyo-based
company spokesman.

As an historical
precedent an 8-meter tsunami that hit Japan's northeast in the year 869 swept
as far as four kilometers inland at Sendai Bay, stretching south toward the
Dai-Ichi plant. "A repeat could occur soon," because sediment samples showed
the tsunami had a pattern of recurring every 800 to 1,000 years, according to a
2001 report
by a research team funded by the government's Science Ministry.

Minutes of a
committee meeting held by the Trade Ministry to assess reactor safety on June
24, 2009, show that Yukinobu Okamura, who heads the government-funded Active Fault and Earthquake Research Center, asked
Tokyo Electric why it hadn't taken on board evidence of the tsunami risk. "We
didn't think the damage would be that significant," replied Isao Nishimura, a
manager at Tokyo Electric's nuclear earthquake resistance technology center.
When will we ever learn?

Japan -The April 20, 2011 New York Times writes:

"The stone tablet
has stood on this forested hillside since before they were born, but the
villagers have faithfully obeyed the stark warning carved on its weathered
face: ‘Do not build your homes below this point!' Residents say this injunction
from their ancestors kept their tiny village of 11 households safely out of
reach of the deadly tsunami last month that wiped out hundreds of miles of
Japanese coast and rose to record heights near here. The waves stopped just 300
feet below the stone, and the village beyond it."

Like most of
the terrible events described in this article, this most recent one described
above, was not at all improbable. In fact it was almost certain to occur, only
its time of occurrence was uncertain. And a stone marker showed where one must
never build. The take-home message is that greed and arrogance is the cause of
most of our suffering — both personal and institutional — and will always get us in
the end.


Cabbage, Michael and Harwood, William, Com Check…: The
Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia
York, Free Press, 2004).

Coleman, Richard M., Wide Awake at 3:00 A.M.: By Choice
of by Chance
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W.H. Freeman
& Co., 1986).

Cook, Richard C., Challenger Revealed: An Insider's
Account of How the Reagan Administration
Caused the Greatest Tragedy of the Space Age,
New York, Thunder

Press, 2006).

Degani, Asaf, Taming Hal: Designing Interfaces Beyond
(New York City, Palgrave McMillan,

Dörner, Dieetrich, The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and
Avoiding Error in Complex Situations,
York, Basic Books, 1996).

Gerstein, Marc, Flirting With Disaster: Why Accidents are
Rarely Accidental,
New York, Union Square
Press, 2008).

Norbu, Chogyal
, The Crystal and the Way of Light: Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen, (Ithaca,
NY Snow Lion Press, 1999).

Perrow, Charles, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk
, Princeton (NJ, Princeton University
Press, 1984).

Puleo, Stephen, Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses
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(Boston, MA, Beacon Press,

Robertson, Morgan, The Wreck of the Titan, or Futility, (Mattiuck,
NY, Ameron Ltd. 1995).

Spignesi, Stephen, Catastrophe: The 100 Greatest
Disasters of All Time
, (New York, Kensington Publishing,

Taleb, Nassim
, The Black Swan: The Impact of the
Highly Improbable,
(New York, Random
House, 2010).


Image by Donkey Hotey, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

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I see the prolific rise of the co-working space as speaking to an even deeper anecdote, one that points to the human need for community, connection, autonomy, and the type of nourishment that late stage capitalism just doesn’t offer.

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