Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Should I stay or should I go?

Firstly, thanks to everyone who has emailed or posted comments wishing me well. I'm touched to know that so many people are concerned about my welfare.

Today was supposed to be graduation, but it has been cancelled. So I am currently at City Hall, having cycled here through the snow wearing both a mask and a wet bandana over my face, just to be on the safe side. We were scheduled to have our first power outage right now, but that hasn't happened. Despite Yamagata's closer proximity to the carnage, our electricity supply is actually in better shape than Tokyo's - we weren't supplied by Fukushima Daiichi, apparently.

Yesterday school was operating normally. I didn't have any lessons, as we are now into that end-of-term slack period when all the time is devoted to preparations for the graduation ceremony: putting up decorations, rehearsing the songs, etc. Usually I would have made some effort to get involved with this, but yesterday I was more intent on spending as much time on the one 'internet computer' in the staffroom as I could get away with, keeping tabs on the situation.

The news was not good. Every time I managed to find some data on the radiation levels at the plant, they were getting higher. To make matters worse, the wind was south-easterly, blowing the plume directly towards me. 103km really didn't seem very far, and I was considering renewing my subscriptions to Scarpering monthly and Leg it news. It wasn't just me; the Google group the Yamagata ALTs use to keep in touch was buzzing with updates, questions, and rumours, though I have to say people have on the whole have been keeping calm quite impressively. In fact, people are so eager not to be seen to be scaremongering that I'm starting to worry we're going too far the other way; some of the advice and information my peers are giving is so positive and cheery that it almost sounds like propaganda.

Anyway, the weird thing was, none of the other teachers seemed to give a hoot about the possibility of an impending meltdown. Perhaps they were just putting on a brave face for the sake of the kids, in which case I commend them. I too was making an effort to be especially upbeat and genki around students. But I think Japanese people just trust the system more than we do: the official advice was that there was no danger outside a 30km radius, so that was good enough for them.

By the time I got home from school, news came that the radiation levels were falling, and while an increase had been detected as far away as Tokyo, it was well within the no-conceivable-threat-to-anyone limits. I downgraded my personal alert level (to "What? (Easy, mon.)"), and tried to relax by closing the BBC News window, opening a beer (alcohol is still in plentiful supply), and playing a spot of Rock Band. Just as I was about to head to bed there was a sizeable aftershock, the first of the day. Then a friend (who had also been boozing the stress away) called and told me that a whole bunch of the JETs from this region are planning to get out of the country imminently.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. It's their lives, and they gotta do what they gotta do. I think many people's families or significant others are putting a lot of pressure on them to come home, and I would like to thank my parents for remaining calm and not doing so. But really, I think they are overreacting given the situation at present, though of course things could change at any moment. Besides, it would be a nightmare trying to get to an international airport right now, with all the fuel shortages and disruption, and I imagine buying a plane ticket at this kind of notice would not be cheap. I suspect some people might feel a bit foolish in about a week. In any case, I hope they at least make their houses and whatever resources they have available for anyone that might need them. I think it's worth remembering that while we are thinking about getting out of here, people are being evacuated to Yamagata.

A common complaint is that there is not enough information being made available. While I think there is some truth to that, there's probably a bit more out there is you're willing/able to read it in Japanese. Someone sent me a link to official hourly radiation data recorded in Yamagata prefecture (easy on that link, the site seems to be overloaded). Overnight it peaked at around three times normal, which is nothing. If it goes up by two or three orders of magnitude, then I might start to worry. I'm really glad I found this information; radiation is scary because you have no way of sensing it. Never have I wanted a Geiger counter so badly. Some of my friends have been looking to me for information on the science side of things, which I must admit I'm kind of loving. Just now I gave my City Hall colleagues a quick lesson on the meanings of milli-, micro-, nano-, etc.

Finally, there is a lot of chat about donating to the relief effort. Someone has come up with the clever slogan of 'Man up for Japan', meaning donating 10,000yen (or ichi man en, you see). As many of you will know, the whole concept of charity kind of scrambles my brain. Though there are terrible things happening on the east coast, I wondered how much throwing money at the problem could really help, given that Japan is a wealthy country with advanced search and rescue facilities, and the international community is offering all the help it can. This got me thinking about the whole idea of the most rational way to give to charity, and I discovered that some people have put considerable effort into researching that question. Consequently, last night I manned up to provide medical supplies for people living in rural areas of Africa.

Oh, and shower news: It turns out that after the quake there was some crap in the water pipes which clogged up my shower. My landlord fixed it yesterday morning.

Update: Sorry to leave this on a cliff-hanger, but as I was writing this, the news from Fukushima Daiichi has once again taken a turn for the worse. I'll keep you posted.

Update, 15:30 local
I was put 'on standby' for the afternoon, i.e. allowed to go home. On the supplies front, there were encouraging scenes at the supermarket: they had restocked milk, eggs, cheese; I even managed to pick up a freshly baked apple pie. We are still in a no-bread situation though, and I ate the last of the strawberry milkshake loaf this morning.

Regarding the whole nuclear threat, although radiation at the plant briefly reached frighteningly high levels this morning, the measurements are actually falling steadily in Yamagata. There's a nice strong westerly wind today too, which is ideal. The French are doing what the French do best - making a big fuss out of nothing - by instructing their citizens to leave Tokyo. Meanwhile, the British are doing what they do best and keeping a stiff upper lip during times of adversity. I urge anyone worried about the radiation to read this.

Update: In an effort to defeat panic using science, I made a graphical, English language version of the data I was talking about above. It seems to be a hit with the ALTs of Yamagata, so I thought I'd share it with you too.

Update (19:30 local)
My supervisor is amazing. On monday he came to my door with a little goody bag containing a bunch of bananas, a packet of crackers, a chocolate bar and a can of beer. Just now he showed up with a bag of bread and rolls that looks a lot like what we get for school lunch, claiming he'd got them from "the city's supply". It's like he heard my bread prayers. I can confirm that none of it is strawberry milkshake flavoured.

Update, Thu 09:30:
The weather is a bit of a double edged sword right now. The wind continues to come from the NW, which is blowing the radiation out to sea nicely, but is also bringing wintry conditions that can't be helping the relief effort. It was very cold last night, with ice starting to form in my kitchen sink, and there's been a substantial dump of snow. I've got my heater on the lowest possible setting (12°C, small room mode) and my kerosene is holding out pretty well.

The media hype is one thing, but everyone knows that the media have a vested interest in sensationalising things. What's really starting to get my goat is the governments advising their citizens to leave, based on not very much. I spent about half an hour this morning writing emails trying to calm people who had been spooked by the US deciding that everyone within 80km of the plant should get out. I know you can say it's a precaution, better safe than sorry, etc., but some people are unable to leave, and this kind of thing is scaring them unnecessarily. Furthermore, with the damaged transport infrastructure already struggling to cope, it seems borderline irresponsible to encourage people to flee from what remains at this stage a remote chance of danger.


  1. Ok, feel less concerned after reading your link. Take care :-)

  2. Nice graphs - you should try to get them onto the BBC to limit the shrill scare-mongering they are broadcasting. It would make a change from the 24-hour coverage of the explosions at FD.

  3. I like the idea that decades from now the taste of strawberry milkshake bread will be all it takes to make your memories of this time come flooding back.

    Interesting to read your take on the charity situation, Taku's holding an actual literal cake bake to raise money on Monday (I'm thinking I'll give him my left over Yen).

  4. Tim says:
    Ironically, bananas are among the most radioactive fruit. Maybe - in the interest of the Public Understanding of Science - you could recalibrate your spreadsheet data according to the banana equivalent dose.

  5. Tim also says "why can't I post comments with my own profile!". This blog site seems to have outlawed me, possibly because I put HTML in my comment. Anyway, hope you're stocked up on bread.

  6. Hi Finlay
    Glad to hear that you’re OK despite the tragic events over the past few days. We enjoy reading your blogs reports...much better than the BBC news, their reporters seem to exaggerate many of the problems.
    Keep the blogs coming and take care.
    Best wishes
    David & Melissa

  7. Tim - sorry about that, I don't know what's going on. That's interesting about bananas, I had no idea. The thing is, I don't even like bananas.

  8. Hi Finlay,
    Glad to hear that you are well and coping. I had phoned my Dad as soon as I heard what had happened in Japan, to see if he knew if you were ok. It would seem that The Stewart's had excelled themselves with communication! My Dad had already spoke to your Dad!
    I have really enjoyed reading your blogs (anything to fill the time at work!!) it is good to hear first hand what the reality is.
    Take care Finlay, Heather xx

  9. Why is it ironic that bananas are more reactive than other fruit?

  10. Tim says:

    @ Danny

    The irony is not that bananas are more radioactive than other fruit, but that Finlay's supervisor brought them to Finlay during a 'nuclear crisis' [sic].

    BTW I would like to stress that I don't think it's a crisis, based on the scant evidence myself and the British media are privy to. I think the earthquake and subsequent humanitarian problems are the crises. Our media doesn't find natural disasters exotic enough, I guess.