Saturday, October 3, 2009

Indonesian Earthquake: Links to News, and Rambling on About Estimates and Common Sense

Quite a few places have been hit by earthquakes this week. Many of them in Sumatra.

The number of dead in Indonesia is 540 (local authorities) or 1,100 (U.N. official), and it's quite possible that 4,000 are trapped under the rubble. Someone with the U.N. explained that the 1,100 figure was an early estimate. (CNN) I'm inclined to believe the U.N. numbers - and those of the local officials: because I think they're two different counts.

It's likely enough that the local officials are counting people they actually know are dead: Folks who stopped living rather abruptly when the earthquake hit, and whose bodies have been found. In some parts of the world, local officials seem to under-report problems: probably to keep themselves from looking bad. I have no idea if that happens in Indonesia, but I have no reason to think so.

An early estimate that's roughly twice the actual death toll is what a responsible emergency-response official might reasonably come up with. Think about it:
  • An earthquake hits
  • Communications lines are down
  • Survivors and reconnaissance shows that some small communities aren't there any more
  • It's obvious that a lot of people died
  • Survivors are going to need help
    • Including finding the dead, so they can be buried, cremated, or whatever the local custom is
      • That's not just 'being nice'
        • Dead bodies, left unattended, serve as incubators for a smorgasbord of loathsome diseases
  • Survivors could use outside help
Imagine you're responsible for putting out a call for help. People at the other end will want to know how big the problem is. You could give a low-end estimate, and hope for the best.

'Hey, the ground shook, some buildings collapsed, we don't have power, telephones don't work, and nobody's answering radio calls: How bad can it be?'

No: that's not sensible. Taking available information, including known body counts, multiplying that by a factor to account for what can't be known, and asking for help to cover a reasonably pessimistic scenario - yeah, that makes sense.

It's like the fire department in the small town where I live. A fire alarm at the school brings a substantial fraction of the force immediately - often with more coming in a second wave.

Usually it's an overreaction. But I don't think it's unreasonable. Think of the alternative: One fire truck and a firefighter with a portable extinguisher shows up. Generally, that's all that's needed. Except this time, the fire started in the library and the place is going up like kindling. One dude with a squirt bottle, no matter how sincere, isn't going to be much help.

Back to Indonesia - We don't know how many people died. We probably won't for weeks - or months - or we may never know for sure. Some of the areas were hit hard.

Asking for more help than is actually needed, in circumstances like this, isn't all that bad an idea.

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From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.