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Innovation Through Accident


Dangerous Grounds for Technology


Seattle is one of the loveliest cities in the world. Nestled between lovely blue lakes, gorgeous forested mountains and a rather large bay. Seattle provides the manufacturing infrastructure for much of the worlds air transportation needs, from Boeing. Seattle is also the home of the worlds largest software company, Microsoft. About 12 miles from Seattle, in a suburb called Redmond, Microsoft lives in a large “campus” consisting of an eye-pleasing array of tastefully architected buildings. Practically everything that Microsoft sells comes from Redmond. The Seattle area is also one of the more risky places to live in.


From Northern California to the upper reaches of Washington is a line of mountains called the Cascades. Populated heavily by volcanic peaks, dotted with lakes, dense forests and a misty aura, it is yet another naturally dangerous part of North America. Most of the volcanoes in the Cascades are “active”, and the rest are “potentially active”. A volcano is termed active if it has had a major eruption within the last 200 years. Most volcanoes in the Cascades have this reputation (the most recent eruption was a rather violent explosion atop Mt. St. Helens, in 1980). A “potentially active” volcano has spewed up in the last 1000 years. Almost all active volcanoes have quite frequent minor eruptions, accompanied by earth movements, but no one seems to pay attention to these events.


Flying to Seattle from the south is a visual treat. Last week, I discovered it all over again, aboard a flight from Phoenix to Seattle. Cruising north of California, into Oregon, at over 30,000 feet, the view is astounding. First, you meet the majesty of The Three Sisters. Three amazingly close, snow-covered peaks, each rising to 10,000 feet, jutting out of a hazy forest. Each peak has the remarkable conical shape of a volcano (think, Mt. Fuji). North from the Three Sisters is Mount Washington at 10,000 feet. As the plane leaves Mt. Washington behind, yet another peak rises to meet you. This is Mount Hood (11,000 feet). As you look down the stately mountain, to its base, you see a sprawling city. Dangerously snuggling up to this active volcano is the city of Portland. Hugging the base of Mt. Hood, Portland is home to much of the research and manufacturing facilities of the hi-tech giant, Intel.


Further north is Mount St. Helens. St. Helens looks bad, its cone is damaged, as if someone axed off a third of the top. The massive damage occurred in 1980 when a huge eruption blew off the top of the mountain, and reduced its height from 9,700 feet to its present 8,300 feet. Thankfully, St. Helens is in a remote, unpopulated area.


Portland is not alone in its proximity to a major active volcano. North of Mount St. Helens is the most majestic of all the peaks in the Cascades, Mount Rainer, standing 14,000 feet tall. Mount Rainier too, comes with a city attached. That city is Seattle.


As the aircraft approaches Rainer, it descends to 10,000 feet. Hence Rainer looms way taller and looks larger than life. The flight path makes the aircraft swing around Rainer, banking sharply as if to avoid hitting the mountain, its wing tips seeming to graze the rugged yet snowy slopes. After a few minutes of banking around Rainer, the city of Seattle appears and soon the plane is on the runaway, while everyone gasps as the closeness and the magnitude and the majesty of lovely active volcano.


On February 28, 2001 at about 11am people living in Seattle got a rude shock. The terrain rattled and shook as the shock waves of a rather large earthquake rolled into town. The magnitude of the shaking was measured at 6.8 on the Moment Magnitude scale.


The moment magnitude scale is one of many scales used to measure earthquakes. The most famous, but currently considered obsolete earthquake measuring scale is the Richter Scale. There days, the Richter scale is available for sale in surplus stores. The moment magnitude (also called, just magnitude, or MW) is the most common measure in current use and is loosely comparable to the Richter scale (they measure different things). Regardless, 6.8 is quite big, though not quite as big as the Gujrat earthquake, which had a moment magnitude of 7.7.


Luckily the damage was rather minimal. One human died, not due to injuries, but due to fright (heart attack). Many older building were damaged. Two factors led to the containment of damage. First, the city is new and most buildings are designed to withstand shaking. Second, the epicenter of the quake was 30 miles below the surface of the earth, deep deep down under Mount Rainer. The depth muffled some of the powerful shocks. This was plain lucky.


The Northwest United States is of course, not the only epicenter of hi-tech. The real capital of technology surrounds a inland bay, south of San Francisco. The “Bay Area”, or “Silicon Valley” as it is called, spreads over a narrow 7-mile wide region that is about 30 miles long and dotted with towns with names such as San Jose, Santa Clara, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale. This is the home of everything electronic, everything software and everything geeky.


And through the center of San Francisco and the Bay Area, runs the famous line in the ground called the San Andreas Fault. San Andreas is a long deep crack in the earth, about 600 miles long and 20 miles deep. It starts somewhere in the northern reaches of California, and rips thought coastal California all the way to the west of Los Angles and San Diego. This fault is the cause of many major earthquakes, including the big one in 1906, which destroyed San Francisco. Since then, there has been hundreds if not thousands of earthquakes of widely ranging magnitudes, the recent severest being the Northridge (Los Angeles) in 1994 (57 killed, 9000 injured, 6.8 magnitude), Loma Prieta (Bay Area) in 1989 (63 killed, 4,000 injured, 6.9 magnitude). In fact, published data shows that in the last one-week (a typical week), there were 126 earthquakes in California! Many of these (about 10) were over 4 in magnitude. A magnitude 4 earthquake is readily felt by humans (unless sleeping or inebriated).


The dark cloud hanging over the technological capital of the world, is that seismologists have been warning about the “Big One” that may devastate much of coastal California, and is expected to happen “about 100 years after the last big one”. The last big one was, of course, 1906. Depending on whom you believe, the next big one can be really big. In fact, many speculators are supposedly buying large tracts of land in the Arizona desert—hoping to strike it rich. After California rolls into the ocean, they hope to own prime, beachfront property.


California is a intriguing place. Geographically it consists of a lovely coastline, sprinkled with quaint towns, lovely beaches and a rugged set of hills close to the water. Inland it has huge tracts of agricultural land, and surprisingly, most of the state is uninhabitable. The unlivable tracts are on the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the huge deserts in the west. Even with a fraction of inhabitable land, California has the largest population (33 million) and the largest economy ($1 trillion) of any state in the USA.


Economically, California is comparable to countries. If California was a country it would be the worlds 7th largest economy (after the US, Japan, Germany, France, United Kingdom and China). The diversity of California’s economic substrate is intriguing. Technology accounts for maybe about 20% of the economy. Among the others are Agriculture (especially fruits), Tourism (remember Disneyland?), Entertainment (remember Hollywood?), Wineries (some of the best wine in the word come from Napa Valley and Sonoma County) and Mining.


Safety wise, California is a disaster. Earthquakes are a minor irritant. In the last decade, California has been lashed by floods, baked by severe droughts, burnt by huge wildfires, and has been devastated by landslides. As if natural disasters were not enough, California is in the throes of a huge man-made disaster, as we speak. Due to some grossly negligent energy policies, including a completely bungled electric deregulation initiative, California is facing (and will face) a terrible shortage of electricity. “Rolling Blackouts” have started and is expected to get worse as summer progresses.


Danger is the intoxicant of the western states. Even the modern airport in San Francisco is designed to pump adrenalin. On my way back from Seattle, my scheduled flight was cancelled and I was rerouted through San Francisco. As is customary, the airplane approached the landing strip over the huge bay (lake) adjoining the airport. By design, the plane descended over the water aiming for a runway not visible from the passenger windows. The water got closer and closer. The apprehension amongst all the passengers was quite apparent, as the aircraft kept descending on the bay, seemingly on a course to plunge into the water. A second before touching the water, some people gasped, others screamed in horror. Just as the water almost touched the belly, there was a thud and the plane touched firm ground. A perfectly routine landing at San Francisco. The runways jut into the bay, and until the aircraft hits the tarmac, all that’s visible out of the window is just water. 600 planes land every day on those runways, and tens of thousands of people either pray hard, or suffer from near heart attacks.


Why are the world’s coveted technological capitals resident in some of the most dangerous places? There is possibly no satisfactory answer to it. We can speculate that innovation and the ability to “think outside the box” is a trait of a particular type of humans. The risk takers, the unconventional humans, the people who have less regard for stability and personal safety, work the best in cutting edge novelties. They seem to congregate in places that meeker minds would not want to be in. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland are all part of the old wild west. The wild west has now transformed into the hotbed of the new economy. Whose fault is that? Only, partly, San Andreas’.



Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at http://cactus.eas.asu.edu/partha.









 Partha Dasgupta