The Earthquake

Earthquake damage at Yokohama Station © 2011 Brian Farrell

The earthquake struck as our elementary classes were about to wrap up for the day. In the library, the students were responsible and quietly took cover underneath tables as we watched the books falling off the shelves around us. Compared to other libraries, we fared quite well in that we didn’t have that many books falling, and all of our shelves remained firmly bolted into the concrete floor. I’ve complained previously about not being able to have our shelves on wheels – I can promise that no one in Japan will hear that particular gripe from me ever again.

As the aftershocks wore on, the library became the central gathering place for elementary students until they could be picked up by a parent. We watched movies on the computer projector, we passed laptops around for people to Skype loved ones, and we watched the internet livestream of the tsunami in horror. I tried in vain to reach my fiancée who was working in Tokyo by phone. I was finally able to get a message to her by way of her mother on Skype, and learned that she was in Shinjuku and going to try to walk home. It would ultimately take her seven hours to walk as far as Tsunashima (about 20-25km) before the trains started running again and she managed to get home. Of course, being Japanese (more on this in a bit), she was up and out the door for work at 7am the next morning. Some of us stayed at school with students until they could all either go home with a parent or go to a volunteer homestay family nearby, and we were able to find somewhere safe for everyone by about 9:30pm.

The week since the earthquake has been torturous in its constant stream of alarmist and flat our wrong information, and the foreign press and foreign embassies seem to just be making matters worse. There have been erroneous reports about everything from the spread of radioactivity to the level of religious faith that Japanese people hold. Many foreigners have fled, and many of us are now suddenly on extended holidays (my school is closed, and the next two weeks are our regularly scheduled spring break).

For all of us here in the Yokohama/Tokyo area though, this cannot begin to compare to what people north of us are dealing with. We’ve all seen the images, and they are unfathomably devastating. Anyone who has survived is now stranded in a shelter short on food, heat, and water, with no immediate way out, and often no way to even communicate to their families that they are okay. The workers who are battling to contain the nuclear situation will all have families that live nearby (assuming that they have survived). Some of these same families posted a heart-wrenching note on national TV last night asking simply, please give some food to the men at the power plant.

Fuji-san Sunset © 2009 Brian Farrell

Amidst this chaos, the Japanese people have shown me just how incredibly disciplined, calm, and selfless they are. There is no panic in the air, just a saddened calmness and resolve as people try to go about their lives. There have been shortages of food, but there’s been no pushing or shouting in the shops as people try to buy what little they can. After the earthquake, people walked for hours on end to get home, but would never have considered stealing a bicycle (many of which can always be found sitting unlocked) to shorten their journey. There have been lineups at gas stations (those that have managed to stay open) with several hundred cars in them, all waiting to get even a few litres of fuel, but no one is honking their horn, no one is demanding that they somehow be treated differently from everyone else.

I’m almost ashamed then that I will be leaving here tomorrow. My fiancée and I had always planned to head to Thailand for spring break on Saturday, but managed to move our flight up a day when our school closed down. There’s really nothing useful that I can do here, as volunteers (particularly those like me who cannot speak Japanese) are not wanted in Tohoku yet, and we’ll be less mouths to feed and two fewer people using electricity while we’re gone. Still, I can’t help but feel like I am abandoning a place that has shown me just how incredible humanity can be. I hope that I can pay this life lesson back by spending some time volunteering in Tohoku this summer, or fundraising, or really doing anything to help these beautiful people who are Japan.

がんばろう日本!

Social Media Success and Failures after the Japan Earthquake

Earthquake damage near Yokohama Station

First, we’re all safe here in the Yokohama area. The worst that we’ve had to contend with is the possibility of rolling power blackouts, which pales in comparison to the horrendous scene a few hundred kilometers north of here.  The earthquake was certainly felt here, and we continue to feel regular aftershocks. I have photos of some of the damage in Yokohama here, but overall, we’ve been incredibly lucky. My heart is with the people of northern Honshu.

Screen grab of TimeOutTokyo's Twitter Feed

My most reliable source of information throughout this catastrophe has been Twitter. There are a few sources there, including TimeOutTokyo (which is normally an entertainment and restaurant review source), that have been absolutely fantastic with providing very current English information about the situation. For those of us who can’t speak Japanese, this has been incredibly valuable, and I am very thankful for those who are working tirelessly to get this kind information out.

Screen grab of DFAIT's Twitter Feed. Note the time between updates.

The Canadian Embassy in Tokyo, and the Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa has been completely the opposite – most of what they’ve been posting (when they’ve bothered to post anything at all) has been political spin about how the Foreign Affairs minister supports the cause or that their call centre in Ottawa is doing their job (answering the phone – never mind that phone service here did not work for the first six hours, and is still sporadic). I don’t understand why they bother to have a Twitter account at all if they’re only going to use it to post this kind of garbage. That type of stuff is best left for their website, which, along with the main DFAIT website in Ottawa, I wasn’t even able to access for the first two days, even though I’ve had internet service continually since the earthquake happened. I’m registered with the embassy, so they have sent me two emails in the past four days, the first of which was some three hours after the earthquake, and started with “As you may have heard on the news already, a powerful 8.9 magnitude earthquake…struck off the east coast of Honshu, Japan on 11 March 2011 at 14:46 local time (00:46 Ottawa time).”

I haven’t heard it on the news DFAIT, I’ve been living in the midst of it. It seems as though you’re spending my tax dollars on garden parties at the embassy, as you’ve been proven irrelevant by a local entertainment magazine. Thanks for nothing.

Flickr celebrity status and searching photos

For one day last week, I was a Flickr celebrity. Somehow my photos were picked up by both the Yahoo Editorial blog feed and the main Flickr blog, which sent my photo view statistics through the roof. Over the past three years or so, I’ve had somewhere in the neighbourhood of 35,000 views of my photos. That day I received 47,000.

Being in the right place at the right time was certainly important in getting my photos seen, as they were from an event that was just starting (the Sapporo Snow Festival). Using tags and keywords effectively probably also helped. The fact that my photos, while being of an event in Japan, were searchable in English may have had something to do with it too.

Strangely, far more of my views came from people who were looking at the Yahoo site rather than the Flickr blog. I find this interesting, because despite my attempt at mining through Yahoo and its associated sites, I can’t seem to find anywhere else that they have these photos featured. Things like this can get me nervous, as it means that my photos are potentially floating out in places that I don’t know about.

Nice and the Mediterranean ©Brian Farrell

I’m certain that this is happening with a couple of my photos of Nice, France already, but searching for images and their associated websites is a whole different ballgame than searching for other web links. Flickr does allow you to see incoming links to your photos (and so I can know very important things like searching for ‘horse punch’ in Google images will bring my picture up 5th in the results), but there appear to be ways for websites to circumvent this. Add to the fact that some of my pictures look very much like other pictures out there of the same thing, and it becomes very difficult to sort out which ones out there are mine.

That or someone I know just really wants to go to Nice, and keeps admiring the view in my photos. If that’s the case, they should know that while it’s a nice city, the beach was a bit of a disappointment.

I’ve been negligent…

…and that’s okay.

I’ve been dedicating most of my time lately to working on assignments for a course I’m currently taking.  Things have been quite busy, and will only get busier in March with an upcoming workshop and a few weeks of family visiting here.  And although I sometimes feel that blogging can be a distraction, I will endeavour to keep this space more current.

On a different note, I’ve been reading the reviews of Amazon’s new Kindle and wondering how this could be implemented in our library.  I still can’t wrap my head around what the best, most efficient and effective way would be to use this tool.  More importantly, how can we justify $200 for each unit.  Yes, it’s cheaper than the first model, but it’s still $200.  Maybe it could be used specifically for newspapers or magazines?  Maybe we could keep each title on a separate SD card and circulate them independently of the Kindle units?

Ultimately, I don’t think I’ll be able to really envision how best to use one without trying one out.  Unfortunately, Amazon Japan’s first link is to a Sony product when I search for ‘kindle’, so I’m not sure how this will play out here.