Disaster relief, MacGyver-style

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

Last weekend, with Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the Northeast, shoppers hurried to the store for emergency supplies—bottled water, canned goods, batteries—only to find their neighbors had beaten them there. The government has tried, after Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina, to encourage Americans to anticipate disastrous events; FEMA recommends keeping a disaster kit at the ready. But according to a 2009 survey, only about half of Americans do so. In general, we’re still terrible at preparing.

But what if the problem isn’t people’s willingness to prepare but the way we’re taught to think about “preparedness”? Ana-Marie Jones, who runs a Bay Area organization called Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters, tries to get people to realize that all is not lost just because they’ve failed to tick items off a shopping list. Instead, she trains people to think more resourcefully, and realize that in a genuine emergency, everyday objects—a fork, a Ziploc bag, a bandana—can become preparedness supplies.

One of her favorite examples was a paperback book, which in one brainstorm session became, for instance:


 A fire-starter

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

  Paper cups

  A funnel

  Toilet paper

­  A Hansel-and-Gretel-style trail of paper “bread crumbs” to show friends or family where you’d gone if you had to leave the house.


Some items really are hard to replace: There aren’t many workarounds for matches and clean water, for instance. But just because you didn’t buy a whistle or a dust mask (both on FEMA’s recommended list) doesn’t mean you’re not prepared to deal with a situation where you’d need one.

Miniscule worlds

Jennifer L. Peters and Michael R. Taylor
This image won Nikon’s annual photomicrography competition for 2012.

The zebrafish is bright and striped, and it can regenerate its fins, its heart, and its brain. It is not very large; in an aquarium, it grows to less than two inches long. What’s even smaller: a zebrafish embryo. And what’s even smaller than that is the embryo’s blood-brain barrier, the system of vessels that sneaks through the brain to deliver it oxygen—and that is pictured here.

Jennifer L. Peters and Michael R. Taylor took this photograph by scanning a live zebrafish embryo and creating tiny sections—as thin as 250 nm thick—that they then stacked to create a 3-D image. They added the colors to communicate depth.

Their image won Nikon’s annual photomicrography competition for 2012. Many of the entries, which can be found at, have a similarly ethereal quality.

The brontosaurus of data

A yottabyte is mind-boggling amount of data.
A byte is eight 1s and 0s. A yottabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. That’s the magnitude of data that the National Security Agency aims to store in a 1-million-square-foot data center, to be completed next year. How many movies in a yottabyte? An estimated 9 billion years of Bluray-quality entertainment.


Yotta is as far as the International System of Units—the metric system—goes. Soon enough, though, we’re going to create so much data that we’ll need a new way to describe it—a prefix for numbers with a magnitude of 1027.

What comes next? Maybe a brontobyte.

That’s what the tech website GigaOm gleaned from a recent presentation by Intel’s Shantanu Gupta. He used “brontobyte” to talk about how much data we’ll be dealing with once we start connecting all the inanimate objects we deal with—appliances, cars, crops, buildings—to the Internet and collecting information about their behavior. (This is the “Internet of things,” and it has to potential to exceed both our understanding of how the world around us works and our server space.)

As a prefix, bronto- has some traction. It’s been mentioned not just on the tech reference website What’s a byte?, as GigaOm noted, but in the online Urban Dictionary. Unlike hella-, which a group of University of California students pushed for as the official 1027 prefix a couple years back, bronto- has gravitas.

Plus, bronto- evokes the famous if mythical brontosaurus, the “thunder lizard.” The brontosaurus has now vanished from the scientific lexicon—it was really the apatosaurus, misidentified—but for anyone who grew up with the T. rex, stegosaurus, triceratops, and brontosaurus as the staple dinosaurs, “bronto” just feels big. Really big.

Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian’s SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.