December 28, 2004 | 10:18 PM ET

The New York Times noted today:

For vivid reporting from the enormous zone of tsunami disaster, it was hard to beat the blogs.

The so-called blogosphere, with its personal journals published on the Web, has become best known as a forum for bruising political discussion and media criticism.  But the technology proved a ready medium for instant news of the tsunami disaster and for collaboration over ways to help.

It certainly did.  As I noted earlier (scroll down) blogs and the Internet produced fast-moving, dynamic coverage of events.  TV folks were often left behind.  As Jeff Jarvis notes:

I'm watching CNN right now and Anderson Cooper made a big deal of showing video of the tsunami "just in."  Except I saw that video online this morning and linked to it then.
Whether it comes to gathering news -- witness this video -- or distributing news -- witness the 6-10 times more people who saw Jon Stewart online than on CNN -- the new, distributed citizens' network sometimes beats the old, centralized corporate network.

Examples of these online videos can be found here, among many other places, and check out the many firsthand blog reports from people in the area collected here by Joe Gandelman.  And it wasn't just reporting that blogs did.  Blogs and the Internet played a major role in fundraising -- blogs like The Command Post, Tim Blair and The South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog, which was set up on-the-fly by bloggers from the region, and which collects all sorts of news along with an endless collection of resources and places to help.  And the big dogs of the Internet are starting to get involved:   Amazon.com is forwarding donations to the Red Cross, and collected over half a million dollars in the first few hours.  (You can see the current total here).

The Internet accounts have given the disaster an immediacy and a personal dimension that traditional news accounts lack, and the self-organizing character of the blogosphere has allowed for rapid response as people who want to help have been put together with ways to help.

That won't replace traditional efforts, of course:  Despite being criticized as " stingy"
by Jan Egeland, UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, the United States has sent an aircraft carrier and a Navy expeditionary group that was supposed to go on holiday leave to help with the recovery effort.  It'll be a long time before the Internet crowd can dispatch resources like that.

But nonetheless, a lot of human capital has been brought to bear on this problem in very short order, through voluntary cooperation.  Get used to it:  Navies have been around for a long time, but this is the wave of the future.

December 27, 2004 | 11:23 PM ET

The death toll from the Indian Ocean tsunami keeps rising, and it's likely that the totals will be much higher.  Part of the problem was lack of preparation:

Most of those people could have been saved if they had had a tsunami warning system in place or tide gauges," he said yesterday.

"And I think this will be a lesson to them," he said, referring to the governments of the devastated countries.

Person also said that because large tsunamis, or seismic sea waves, are extremely rare in the Indian Ocean, people were never taught to flee inland after they felt the tremors of an earthquake.

Tsunami warning systems and tide gauges exist around the Pacific Ocean, for the Pacific Rim as well as South America. The United States has such warning centres in Hawaii and Alaska operated by the US Geological Survey. But none of these monitors the Indian Ocean region.

But actually, the U.S. Geological Survey did notice and try:

It emerged that U.S. officials who detected the quake tried frantically to warn Asia the deadly wall of water was on its way but there was no official regional alert system to contact.

(Even a blogger who subscribes to the USGS e-mail list knew in advance.)  The problem is that governments are slow, and disasters can be fast.  That has Manan Ahmed upset, and rightly so:

Let me get this straight.  In this day and age, when I can get the NYSE ticker on my toilet roll, they cannot figure out how to get disaster information out!?  I want to scream from looking at the pictures of drowned babies on NYT and CNN.com. Those lives could have been saved if someone had a Blackberry subscription?

Like I said, I am angry.

Yes.  I don't think people should be hard on the USGS folks -- imagine that you knew that a disaster was bearing down on a foreign country and you had a couple of hours to (1) figure out who to contact; and (2) much harder, to convince the person on the other end of the phone, who hasn't heard of you, to take action.  Governments tend to like to act based on information from trusted channels, rather than dynamically processing it.  As The Belmont Club observes:

Now that a tsunami has struck the Indian Ocean there were will probably be a clamor to invest in monitoring and warning systems costing billions.  Ironically, these magnificent systems will probably go unused for years, perhaps centuries, before politicians in the future elected by voters whose memory of these tragedies has faded say 'what are these White Elephants for?' and abolish them in favor a more immediately beneficial project. The characteristic of rare events is that they are rare.
...
In an abstract way, the information flows surrounding the Tsunami of December 2004 structurally resembled those preceding the Pearl Harbor and September 11 attacks. The raw data announcing the unfolding threat was there, yet the pattern so evident in hindsight was invisible to those who were not looking for it.  But if tsunamis and asteroid strikes are rare events, they are comparatively more common than that still rarer object, the unprecedented event: the something that has never happened before. Threats like that can emerge suddenly out of chaotic systems, like WMD terrorism or new viral plagues.  Against such events, specific precautions are impossible because no one can prepare for what cannot be foreseen.  The real challenge is not so much to create a new dedicated network of staring systems against known threats but to tie current sensors to systems which are capable of cognition.  The most valuable survival asset is situational awareness -- the ability to recognize threats you have never seen before and respond in an evolving manner -- and that capability has not yet come to the world as a whole.

Learning to deal with things like this will be a major task of the 21st Century.  As The Belmont Club also observes:

The Internet, space based sensors, biohazard threat detection, the exoatmospheric interception of earthbound objects -- are all things deemed at one time or another as a waste of money by the more enlightened, but which may yet provide the margin for survival in a day unforeseen or unimagined.  More important than the the specific technologies themselves is the watchful and precautionary mindset which created them. For some, the world is not and was never a paradaisal Gaia but a dangerous place filled with peril both natural and man-made. On the days we forget the ocean is there to remind us.

Indeed it is.  In the meantime, bloggers are providing coverage.  Here's a Tsunami news blog created by bloggers from South Asia.  It also lists a lot of charities that are accepting donations to help the victims.  It'll take several pounds of cure, now that the opportunity for prevention has passed.

Speaking of early warnings, the risk of a strike by asteroid 2004 MN4 has been downgraded to negligible in light of new, more precise observations.  That's good news, though you should still read this piece by Leonard David if you're interested in this subject, and you should be.

December 26, 2004 | 4:00 PM ET

Earlier this weekend, people were worrying about an asteroid that may hit the earth in 2029.  But then we faced something more immediate, in the form of an earthquake and tidal wave that killed people all around the Indian Ocean basin. As I write this, the death toll is over 11,000 and is sure to grow as more reports come in.

Bloggers have been on the job here, and you can read lots of first-hand reports via Malaysian bloggers Rajan Rishyakaran, Jeff Ooi, and Peter Tan.  There's also a first-hand report here, and Indian blogger Amit Varma offers historical perspective from an earlier event.

People have also been uploading photos -- you can see galleries here and here.

Many of the blogs involved have been gathering first-hand reports from the affected areas, via telephone and email. First-hand reports, interviews, historical and scientific perspectives -- blogs are acting like news services. And you're the winner, as you can learn a lot from reading these reports.  Check some of them out, as this sort of thing is likely to be the wave of the future.

Meanwhile, if you're worried about killer asteroids and tsunamis, I'll have more later in the week.  In the meantime, you might want to read my column from TechCentralStation today, as well as this column on a related topic from a few months back.

December 22, 2004 | 12:57 PM ET


My criticism of the United Nations continues to generate hostile email along the lines of "you just don't like the U.N. because it stands in the way of world hegemony by the Evil Bushitler and his Likudnik neo-con cabal."

Uh, no. In fact, I'm not a fan of U.S. "world hegemony" at all. Being the world's preeminent military and economic power has its pluses, but not many. Countries with little else to boast of may draw great solace from military power -- the old Soviet Union did that, and many older Russians are still nostalgic -- but American don't care about such things nearly as much.  We have better things to do, and most of us, or our ancestors, came here to escape the problems of the rest of the world.  We'd much rather someone else dealt with them, and left us alone -- though when we express such sentiments we are then accused of "isolationism," often by the same people who are otherwise complaining about American "imperialism."

Unfortunately, who else is there?  The European Union, for all its vaunted soft power, can't seem to do much.  If couldn't deal with Slobodan Milosevic without American help, even though Milosevic was on its doorstep.  It has been trying to deal with the Iranian nuclear problem, but its efforts there appear doomed to failure.  (There's even some suspicion that there are those among the European diplomatic establishment who wouldn't mind a nuclear-armed Iran, seeing it as a "counterweight" to U.S. power in the region.  That would be an absurd and costly miscalculation, but as such it would be, sadly, in keeping with the history of European diplomacy over the past century, which has been characterized by absurd and costly miscalculations, most of which required American troops, and American blood, to make right.  At least the Europeans appear to be playing a positive role in Ukraine, though that's likely to evaporate if there's any significant violence.)

And the United Nations is dropping the ball again, this time in Sudan, where Arab militias are massacring black African inhabitants of the Darfur region while the United Nations fiddles. And the U.N. pretty much admits it: More than 70,000 people have died so far in the Darfur region of Sudan, according to the United Nations under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland.
A U.N. study conducted in June, July and August estimated 10,000 people were dying each month in Darfur. The response? "UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has expressed deep concern."
If you look at the purposes of the United Nations as preventing war and genocide on the one hand, and promoting freedom on the other, it looks like a failure across the board.  (But hey, if you look at it as a tool for protecting dictators and enriching globe-trotting elites, it's doing pretty well!) I'd like to see something better. I'd like to see an international organization that would actually engage in helping to overthrow tyrants and establish democracy, in preventing genocides, and in stopping aggressive nations before they threaten their neighbors.
Unfortunately, at the moment that sounds more like a description of the United States military than of any international organization in existence.  Those who are unhappy with this state of affairs, and anxious to see the United States play a smaller role, should probably start trying to transform the U.N. into such an institution, rather than engaging in denial  It's a job we'd be happy to give up, if there were somebody else who could be trusted to take it on.

December 20, 2004 | 2:32 PM ET

I've written a good deal (just keep scrolling down) on the problems with Kofi Annan's United Nations, particularly in connection with the "UNScam" oil-for-food scandal that took money meant to buy food and medicine for Iraqi children and funneled it instead into Saddam's weapons programs and palaces -- and U.N. bureaucrats' pockets.  But as Kenneth Cain notes today, it's worse than that:

A debate currently rages about whether Kofi Annan enjoys the moral authority to lead the United Nations because the Oil for Food scandal happened under his command.  That debate is 10 years too late and addresses the wrong subject.  The salient indictment of Mr. Annan's leadership is lethal cowardice, not corruption; the evidence is genocide, not oil.
...
But it isn't just the stench of death I remember so vividly; the odor of betrayal also hung heavily in the Rwandan air. This was not a genocide in which the U.N. failed to intervene; most of the U.N.'s armed troops evacuated after the first two weeks of massacres, abandoning vulnerable civilians to their fate, which included, literally, the worst things in the world a human being can do to another human being.

It did not have to happen.  Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the U.N.'s force commander in Rwanda, sent Mr. Annan a series of desperate faxes including one warning that Hutu militias "could kill up to 1,000" Tutsis "in 20 minutes" and others pleading for authority to protect vulnerable civilians.  But at the crucial moment, Mr. Annan ordered his general to stand down and to vigorously protect, not genocide victims, assembled in their numbers waiting to die, but the U.N.'s image of "impartiality."

The outline of this story is well known, but its most important detail is not: Tutsis often gathered in compounds (large church complexes, schools and even stadiums) where they had assumed they would be safe based on implicit, and sometimes explicit, promises of protection by Blue Helmeted peacekeepers. The U.N.'s withdrawal was, therefore, not a passive failure to protect but an active, and lethal, perfidy.

Rwandans still seethe.

And well they might.  But how can such perfidy be explained?  Isn't the United Nations supposed to prevent this sort of thing?

It's supposed to, yes.  But as Carroll Andrew Morse writes, what the U.N. is supposed to do, and what it actually does, are two different things:

Despite the focus on Annan, most people realize that problems with the UN run deeper than any single individual. The UN is plagued by both systemic corruption and a fundamental structural flaw; it makes no distinctions between governments which represent their people and governments which use the instruments of state power to repress and exploit their people. But the real problem with the UN is even deeper.

The real problem is that democratic governments have joined non-democratic governments in a forum whose primary goal is the expansion of government authority.

The United Nations is the pre-eminent trade association for people involved in the business of government power. Actually, it is more focused than that. The United Nations is the trade association for the world's executive branches -- the place where executive branches come together to promote their individual interests to one another, and to promote the expansion of executive authority in general. This point is often missed by UN critics who dismiss the organization as nothing more than the world's greatest debating society. These critics confuse being voluntary with being powerless. Organizations like The American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, the International Tobacco Growers' Association are all voluntary -- but certainly not powerless.

Once it is understood that the United Nations is a trade association for the promotion of executive authority, its behavior becomes almost rational.
. . . 
But looking to the UN to protect individuals who are not government executives from abuses of government power makes as much sense as looking to the International Tobacco Growers' Association to protect individuals from the dangers of smoking.

That seems to be about right.  Perhaps we need another international organization that will actually work to benefit the world's people, and not simply their rulers.  The good news is that people on both the left and right are noticing.  As Cain writes: 

Liberal multilateralists on the left, like me, are often skittish about offering too pungent a critique of Mr. Annan, because it offers aid and comfort to the 'enemy' on the conservative unilateralist right.

But if anyone's values have been betrayed at the U.N. over the past decade it is those of us who believe most deeply in the organization's ideals.  Just ask the men and women of Rwanda and Srebrenica.

Those who survive, anyway.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,