The coming trauma

17 October 2016
US Geological Survey photo by John Nakata

Ruins of the Cypress Structure after the 17 October 1989 earthquake. US Geological Survey photo by John Nakata

When the giant Tohoku earthquake struck Japan on 11 March 2011, followed by a colossal tsunami and the crippling of two nuclear power plants, the effects rippled out in many directions. In my chosen community of Earth scientists, there were many phenomena to investigate; in the engineering community, many case studies to enter in the record; in the disaster-response community, many failures to learn from.

To Takashi Murakami, a Japanese artist based in New York, it was the chance to accept movie director Yoshihiro Nishimura‘s invitation to work together on a feature film project at a time when movie crews were unexpectedly idle.

The story Murakami chose to tell grew out of witnessing the extensive failures of the nation’s authorities, failures that everyone saw firsthand. Lest we forget, the Pacific coast of northern Honshu was first laid in ruins by the earthquake and then overwhelmed by the tsunami. Both were larger than anyone, even the experts, foresaw. The tsunami in turn caused the explosive failure of the Fukushima Number 2 nuclear power plant, spewing radioactive material over a large — still depopulated — area of land.

Murakami drew upon his childhood exposure to gojira monster cartoons, his experience teaching kindergarten and his love of modern anime to craft a cathartic exploration of the Tohoku trauma, costumed as a children’s fantasy. Just two years later the resulting film, “Jellyfish Eyes,” was released in Japan. The Oakland Library has a copy of the Criterion disk, issued in 2015.

In “Jellyfish Eyes” a newly fatherless boy, Masashi, is displaced to a strange and challenging city. He meets and adopts a hovering, spritelike creature who befriends and protects him from similar creatures controlled by his new classmates. These “friends,” supplied by an advanced research lab in the city, are part of a scheme by renegades in the lab to harvest negative emotions from the children, especially Masashi, and acquire a new source of cosmic power. A classic Godzilla plot provides the climax, and the “friends” become benign at the end.

Critics faulted its quick-and-dirty CGI, stylized plot and cartoon visuals. I’m not sophisticated enough a film viewer to care. Those things work. I appreciated Murakami’s singular focus on his audience of Japanese children, a traumatized generation with its own culture and its own need for sensitive candor. I appreciated that he avoided studio financing, knowing that funders would insist on removing the blood (a few drops) and radiation (a few mentions).

“Jellyfish Eyes” is authentically Japanese, as it should be. American viewers won’t get all the hat-tips and references. But they should be able to easily see the deep emotional story beneath the plot — how a disaster hurts and how we can come back from one.

In Oakland, we have an overwhelming earthquake in our own future. We all know it will destroy things no matter how well we prepare. We know the government, whatever it does, cannot do enough. How will our youngest children respond? How will we respond to their needs? Until our own Murakami can rise to the occasion, we’ll have to study the experience of others and do the best we can.

Oakland building stones: Slate

10 October 2016


Slate offers visual texture and a range of colors to the architect, plus superior performance as an exterior stone. It’s not particularly strong among California stone resources, but slate is deeply engrained in European-American culture and geologically interesting to boot. This photo is from a downtown building where slate is used as a wall finish. It presents a naturally textured surface consisting of very thin layers that aren’t boringly flat.


Slate is well displayed at the Ordway Building, where it makes up the pavement around Oakland’s tallest building. Its dignified gray color and organic texture, reminiscent of wood grain, is an excellent foil for the metal and glass around it.


Slate is a claystone or shale that has been squeezed enough to start remaking its mineral content. The clay begins to convert to mica, but more importantly the minerals realign their crystals in response to the pressure. This change imposes a strong new fabric upon the stone that allows it to be split into thin sheets. In this photo from the Ordway Building, the dim stripes running almost vertically down the image are remnants of the original bedding in the shale protolith. You can also see, at the upper right, the approximate point where the quarry worker struck the slab to split off this sheet.

In Oakland buildings, slate appears mainly as an accent in the outside facades and sometimes as a floor in interiors. And, of course, as rugged fireproof roofing tiles.


The rest of the photos below are from the eastern U.S. where slate has been produced for hundreds of years from occurrences in the Appalachian mountain chain.


Slate is not rare — California has lots of it in the Sierra foothills — but it’s hard to find deposits with good, flat slaty cleavage. The two biggest slate-producing areas in this country are in Pennsylvania and in Vermont and the adjoining area of New York, where I took this photo of a waste pile. There’s a great deal of waste rock in a slate operation. Stone like this is still good for flagstone.


In the slate regions, you’ll sometimes see the stone used in unusual applications like this post office building. Notice the range of colors.


And this staircase in Albany, New York, shows how properly selected slate can perform very well under foot traffic. Another advantage is that it isn’t slippery when wet.

The nearest thing to slate that Oakland has is argillite, which is the same metamorphosed claystone but without the slaty cleavage. I think the stone in the Davie quarry qualifies.

Oakland building stones: Larvikite

3 October 2016

The building that houses Autotrends Body Shop, on Broadway’s Auto Row, is trimmed with larvikite, a remarkable decorative stone from the area of Larvik, Norway, in the southern part of the Oslo Graben.


It’s a steel-blue stone, just under 300 million years old, with flashing highlights from fingernail-sized crystals of feldspar. This closeup from the auto body shop shows the richly textured grains in detail. The many tiny dots are probably either dirt or paint spatter, so ignore them.


Other than the black grains, which are mostly titanium-rich magnetite and possibly augite, this rock is almost totally feldspar. The large feldspar grains are intimately intergrown crystals of orthoclase and alkali feldspar. These separated out (exsolved) from an initial material consisting of anorthoclase feldspar in microscopically thin layers (lamellae) as it very slowly cooled. Because the three feldspars occur together, this is called a ternary feldspar. (Feldspars are complicated minerals — there will not be a quiz.) The visible lines are tiny fractures inside the grains that are typical of feldspar.

The lamellae interfere with light in a way that absorbs red and yellow wavelengths. The remaining blue or green diffraction colors are what give the stone its gleam, a characteristic called schiller. The gemstone labradorite, another feldspar, also displays this kind of schiller.

Here’s a cleaner example from a gravestone I photographed at Evergreen Cemetery a few years ago.


This stone has been produced since the 1880s. Buildings all over Oslo, Sweden, feature green, blue and rare red larvikite. There is a large amount of quarry waste involved, which the locals use for everything from concrete aggregate to seawalls.

Larvikite is scarce in Oakland buildings, but you’ll see it as accent stones or in interiors. The bar at Club 21, for instance, is a gorgeous slab of it that glitters like a cosmos under the disco lighting. Think of happy dancing Swedes when you’re there for the monthly meetings of Nerd Nite East Bay. (I’ll be speaking there December 26.)