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Japan needs your attention, Charlie Sheen doesn't

There was a huge earthquake in Japan early yesterday morning... magnitude 9.0, with aftershocks still ongoing in the 5 to 7 range. The quake generated a tsunami powerful enough to travel all the way across the Pacific Ocean and damage boat docks and boats in California and Oregon (which, though bad for those Californians and Oregonians, could have been much worse). This was the fifth-biggest earthquake in 110 years.

Part of the damage from the quake includes cooling system failures at a couple of Japanese nuclear power plants and a non-nuclear explosion at one of the reactors. In all, six reactors have now failed. Japan declared a nuclear emergency (never knew there was such a thing), and the areas around the reactors have been evacuated. They're trying to get the cooling systems back online, but radiation levels on the plant grounds are rising... and the failures are escalating. It sounds like things are indeed getting worse. A nuclear meltdown looks like a real possibility, so say the LA Times and Houston Chronicle (cached copy).

What an awful situation. Whenever there's a big disaster like this, the world rallies around it for awhile, and after a few days — weeks at the most — everybody seems to lose interest and goes back to their lives. It's easy to speculate about the reasons why... here's my theory.

We're living in a world of 24-hour news, outrageous stories attract eyeballs (the train wreck effect, see also: Charlie Sheen), and eyeballs mean advertising revenue. So, to maximize profit, run more and more outrageous stories, and thus draw in more and more viewers. The net effect is twofold. First, at some point, shock value and outrageousness trump the true "news" value (see also: Fox News, et al). And second, as we are exposed to more and more, the impact of that shock value gets weaker... so eventually we just become desensitized to reality.

Just a theory, mind you. I'm no expert on human psychology (or nuclear power plants, for that matter). But whatever the cause, I think it sucks. I think ultimately, we're all in this thing together. I think it doesn't matter what side of the ocean you live on or what color your skin is. It doesn't matter if you're on the "red" team or the "blue" team. It doesn't matter how many letters you have after your name, or how much money you have in the bank. Really, we're not much more than bugs crawling around on this piece of rock... and those of us still crawling around should be thankful for that.

Yet for some reason, it's things like the Charlie Sheen fiasco which grab and hold the attention, while the real tragedies where human lives are lost appear briefly on the radar and then disappear too fast. I don't get it.

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