Saturday, July 25, 2009

Geographica: Venice and BOOM!

It''s bad news and much, much worse news in this month's National Geographic. Don't get me wrong: the magazine itself is still fantastic, fascinating, and grippingly beautiful. But sometimes the balance of its tidings is decidedly tipped toward the glass-half-empty side of the wet bar.

Under the 'bad news' heading: Venice is still sinking, and Venetians are still being mulish assholes about it. Sigh. Some things never change. Although to be fair, Cathy Newman's article is so heavy on Venice-cliches ("What is Venice - so seductive, so lethally attractive - except the most sublime setting for the thrilling of the heart?" And so on) that it doesn't help things any.

The problem is the same one that's plagued Venice for its entire history: the incoming tides are swamping the city. When we're talking about tides of water, from the lagoon, the wrangle revolves around Venice's celebrated MOSE project, which would erect man-made walls across the mouth of the lagoon. The gates would rise into place when dangerously high tides are predicted, and the thinking is that this would save the city from any more excessive erosion. The MOSE gates will allegedly be finished around 2014, but the Venetians have been arguing about it for more than a decade now, and it's unlikely they'll stop any time soon - starting with the city's mayor, who often and publicly sneers at the idea of gates doing any good for his city.

And when we're talking about human tides, the problem takes on an even bigger scope. Venice is visited by roughly 2 billion fat people every day, each and every one of whom a) complains about how crowded it is, b) complains about how hot it is, c) complains about how everybody's talking I-talian, d) complains about how much stuff there is to see, e) complains about how narrow a lot of the streets are, f) complains about how expensive everything is, g) complains about the flooding, h) complains about the plumbing, i) complains about the long waits for all the famous restaurants and bars, j) complains about the smell of the water, k) complains about the Lido (its size, the quality of its sands, etc), l) complains about the dog-poop on the sidewalks, m) complains about how every living Venetian seems to expect a generous tip for every single thing they do within sight of even one tourist, n) complains about the fact that the houses and gardens of real Venetians seem permanently closed to them, o) complains about the differences between the real city and the one they've read about in Donna Leon (this complaint is most often heard during the many 'Donna Leon' tours that wind through the city every day), p) complains about how many churches are in their guidebooks, q) complains about how much of the artwork in those churches is so religious in nature, r) complains about the prevalence of typical American food in restaurants ("we came all this way for this?" etc), s) complains about the native food (too spicy, not spicy enough, too 'watery,' and the perennial #1: portions too small), t) complains about the noise during the day ("I can't hear myself think!" brayed by Methodists who haven't engaged in that particular activity since grade school), u) complains about the sounds at night (favorite American complaint among Venetian hotel staff: "There's a dripping sound"), v) complains about the fact that even restaurants, churches, and islands their guidebook assures them are "seldom visited" are, in fact, crammed to the rafters with people from Spokane, w) complains about how tiring it is to walk around the city (Venice is, roughly speaking, the size of your average K-Mart), x) complains about how rude the Venetians can be (on your average 1-week vacation, every single Venetian you talk to will be in the process of being evicted from their apartment because they can no longer afford the rent, but still ...), y) complains about how all these people are ruining Venice for the rest of us, z) complains about, for the love of God in Heaven, all the canals, then tosses all their plastic bags off their hotel room porch and gets back on their plane for home.

One sensible solution to this human inundation is floated briefly and sarcastically in the article then seemingly dismissed: charge people a lot of money to visit the city. I'm thinking 60 euros per adult, 20 per child, with a significant chunk of the proceeds going to subsidizing the rents of Venetian citizens.

But then, Venetian citizens might have worse things to worry about than long lines for coffee in the morning - and those things would fall under the 'much much worse' news: we're all gonna die.

Apparently, lurking underneath Yellowstone National Park (which, we're informed, contains half the geysers located on the entire planet) is a massive super-volcano that has erupted three times in the very distant past - each time with results several orders of magnitude worse than anything the living memory of the world has ever seen. Vesuvius? An after-dinner belch. Mount St. Helens? A minor night of food poisoning. We're talking about sooper-dooper eruptions that leave holes in the Earth big enough to be seen from Mars.

As Joel Achenbach writes:

Volcanoes form mountains; supervolcanoes erase them. Volcanoes kill plants and animals for miles around; supervolcanoes threaten whole species with extinction by changing the climate across the entire planet.

So we've got that to look forward to. Naturally, the various geologists interviewed in the article are cagey with their comments - nobody's willing to come right out and say when this sooper-dooper eruption will likely take place. Instead, like earthquake experts, they obscure things in the cant of probability - the odds are that, the likelihood is that, etc. But a caldera building towards a major eruption has many very specific signs, and the Hayden Valley in Yellowstone is showing all of those signs. You'd think at least one of Achenbach's specialists would say, "well, nobody can predict the future, but this sure looks like an area that's going to erupt in a big way, certainly in our lifetime." But noooooo ... the bastards.

By now you're all probably asking if there's any good news in this issue of National Geographic. Well, not much: life is still hell for refugees, policing efforts are still failing against fish-poachers in Kamchatka, and the issue still ends with that idiotic crossword puzzle instead of one last glorious photo.

Actually, there's your tiny bit of good news right there: the photos throughout are, as usual, excellent. I know that's not much to counter-balance stupid tourists and killer volcanoes, but hey, there's always next month.

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