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Earthquakes on the Net

Around 7 PM last Saturday night, just as our furnace kicked on, the house started to roll. We have a relatively old house, definitely too old to learn new tricks like rolling over and playing dead, so – luckily – the house decided to stop after 10 or 15 seconds. We realized that the furnace hadn’t blown up after about three or four seconds, and that in fact we were having an earthquake after another one or two seconds. We scurried under a doorway, but I promptly left on a four foot rescue mission to save Fred, a 20-year-old cactus that I was not going to leave to the tender mercies of the quake. And then it was over. No damage, no breakage, no loss of power, gas, water, or TCP/IP access (although we promptly went and checked everything).

Then, rather than turning on the TV or the radio to see what had happened (heck, we knew what had happened – we wanted details), we went to the Mac and out over the Web. Not being a major earthquake buff, I had to go through the excellent Yahoo subject catalog to find the earthquake pages. and_Nature/Disasters/Earthquakes/

Then I went to the USGS National Earthquake Information Center in Colorado, which had a Finger -> Gopher gateway for the latest information on earthquakes.

That was all fine and nice, but since I did this literally minutes after the quake, there wasn’t any data about our earthquake. However, in reading the text of the Finger report, I saw a more local machine at the University of Washington. So I ran Peter Lewis’s Finger program and fingered <[email protected]>. The first time it only had automated information that it claimed couldn’t be trusted, but that information remained constant after the warning went away.

Now we knew that the earthquake had been a magnitude of 5.0, and that it was a bit southwest of Seattle. But where exactly? Then I remembered the Xerox PARC Map Viewer at:

It took a little figuring out, but I managed to get the proper search phrases to locate and mark the exact epicenter of the earthquake. The URL that resulted is terribly long, but should work if you take out the hard return between the two lines before pasting it into a Web browser. /features=alltypes/ht=0.60/lat=47.38/ lon=-122.35/mark=47.38,-122.35/wd=0.60

Perhaps the most interesting part of the quake experience for us was using the Internet to find this information and immediately send it to friends and family. After about the fourth message we sent out, suddenly a piece of mail came in from Peter Lewis in Australia, who happened to hear about the earthquake from someone near Seattle reporting a problem with Anarchie. Obviously, had this been a serious earthquake, the Internet connection would have gone down, at which point no communications would have been possible. Even still, the Internet made the world feel like a much smaller place for the time, and somehow, that was comforting.

Kobe — Speaking of much worse earthquakes, a large amount of information about the Kobe quake appeared on the Web rather quickly, and there’s a nice collection of it at Yahoo. and_Nature/Disasters/Earthquakes/Kobe_ Quake/

In addition to the tremendous human suffering, the Kobe earthquake will likely affect the computer industry rather seriously. Although it appears major semiconductor facilities weren’t damaged as badly as initially thought, some plants were hit hard, and damage to the general infrastructure in the Kobe area will slow the return to full manufacturing and shipping capacity. RAM prices have already risen somewhat, and although large manufacturers with multiple suppliers may not feel the effects, individual consumers will. As with the Sumitomo plant fire in July of 1993 (see the RAM Doubler article in TidBITS-208), prices may increase not because the supplies are constrained, but because of the perception that supplies may be constrained. In a commodity market, that’s all it takes. The resulting price increase is unwelcome, especially in light of the fact that memory prices haven’t changed much in the last few years, unlike the prices of hard disks and other electronic devices.

Finally, to add display insult to memory injury, almost all of the companies that make active-matrix LCD displays were located in the Kobe area as well. Damage to transportation infrastructure and plants owned by Sharp, Hosiden, and DTI will likely result in higher prices and inventory shortages for the active-matrix laptops like Apple’s 540c and the high-end laptops from Toshiba, IBM, and Compaq. So, if you’ve been contemplating such a machine, you might act fast before the supplies in the channel dry up even further.

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