Dec 16, 2019

Predicting earthquakes

By Ed Goldman

Having lived through a few earthquakes, though never in any real danger (except for believing I was in real danger), I’ve been fascinated by California scientists’ declarations recently that they’ve found a way to detect an earthquake—as much as a few seconds before it hits. To me, this is not a serious improvement on predicting the past. Example:

LAB TECH: “Hey, look at the monitor, Boss! It says we’re about to—”
EARTHQUAKE: “Rumble! Crumble! Tumble!”
MyShake sounds like an app you’d use to reserve a McFlurry at McDonald’s.

To be fair, if you have some distance between you and the quake’s epicenter, the new warning system may very well give you time to dive under a desk, provided you work at or near one, or move away from the plate-glass picture windows in the lovely home you bought last year in the Calaveras County town of San Andreas because you thought the name of the town and the famous earthquake fault-line that runs under the state was just a co-inky-dinky. You know, like there being a Moscow in Russia as well as in Idaho. Or the fact that Florida isn’t the only state with a Miami—try Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia. (Can you imagine your disappointment if you’d tuned into a show called “Miami Vice” and found that it was set in Oklahoma?)

According to a story on National Public Radio, “The warnings will be issued in two ways: a cellphone app called MyShake and the more traditional wireless notification system that sends out Amber Alerts.”

First, let’s talk about MyShake. While my marketing work over the years has seen me doing a fair amount of branding, this strikes me as being a pretty cutesy name for warning about something that can have deadly consequences. MyShake sounds like an app you’d use to reserve a McFlurry at McDonald’s. Can we expect the next generation of warning apps to have names like HomeDisadvantage (to signal your domicile is under siege), TopsyTurvyPervy (to indicate your car has just overturned on Interstate 80 and you recognize the only driver who’s stopped to help you as a registered sex offender) or MyGod (to let the world know you’ve just been caught up in The Rapture and won’t be home for dinner in the next several millennia)?

As for MyShake’s similarity to the Amber Alert, will the message be something like this?
SOUND: Loud, prolonged and fuzzy blare similar to the K-12 admonition that recess is over.
AUTHORITATIVE VOICE: “Be on the lookout for a magnitude 5.6 earthquake last seen making buildings fall down on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles, California. The earthquake is described as millions of years old yet surprisingly robust….Repeat, be on the lookout—“
NPR (and dozens of other California media outlets) reported the system was tested two months ago “when residents of the San Francisco Bay Area and Central California were jolted by a magnitude 4.5 quake and a 4.7 quake respectively. Alerts hit phones with a median time of 2.1 seconds in the first case and 1.6 seconds in the latter, said Richard Allen, director UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory.”
Okay, hold on. By the time those alerts reached my smartphone the event was probably over. This is what I meant in the first paragraph of this column when I wrote, “To me, this is not a serious improvement on predicting the past.”
NPR one final time: “Authorities say the system is promising but far from perfect. ‘The California Earthquake Early Warning System is based on innovative technology that will improve over time. In rare circumstances, you may receive a ShakeAlert’—a far less cutesy name, thanks ever so—’when there was no earthquake,’ the announcement of the system said.”
I see: an earthquake warning system that may issue false alarms. On the other hand, since a warning of 1.6 seconds doesn’t really give you time to do anything, a false alarm might end up being just as effective. Suggested new name for the system: MyBad.


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