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Eau de Chat Mort

July 18, 2005

With Salida’s “Eau de Chat Mort” incident safely behind us, the dead cat jokes flowed freely. We chuckled about the “Boil Alert” postings, which hinted at a hideous plague of biblical proportions descended upon Salida. For a brief moment, I thought there might be a market for my wood stove ashes after all.

But the city’s water was not infected, and so the inconvenience served as both a test and a reminder. The city’s public works, health, and emergency services were tested and did nicely. Your patience was probably tested, as well as your memory — how many times did you brush your teeth and take a drink from the faucet before remembering the “boil alert”?

I think we’re much less prepared for water problems than for electrical outage. If the electricity goes out, you simply break out your candles, eat all your ice cream, look at the stars, and enjoy the quiet. But who is prepared not to get clean water from the tap?

World travelers know, of course. Suddenly, knowledge became important: How long do you boil the water? Informed opinions varied a lot. It depended on whether you were purifying water of enteric bacteria likely to be encountered here in the states, or trying to purify water in a distant land where even looking at unboiled water can kill you.

This incident reminds us that we have dependencies. We are networked in intimate ways. It is the glory of the modern world, in fact, but it pays us to review our circumstances now and then.

A mere six years ago, we were ramping up for Y2K with strategies that ranged from surviving Armageddon to optimistically hoping that one’s credit card debt might be wiped out. We watched fireworks off Tenderfoot at midnight, the lights stayed on, and so we went out and bought SUVs. We seem content with our dependencies, even in a land of rugged individualists.

No sooner did “Eau de Chat Mort” officially end than we lost Internet access at the library for 2.5 days. Talk about dependency. It’s remarkable the degree to which our routine business depends on the Internet now. Even checking out a book uses an Internet connection.

Of course, we have formal contingency plans, one of which is pen and paper. The other is the Dewey Decimal Classification system, believe it or not. When we can’t look up a book in our catalog because we can’t connect to the Internet, we rely on (i) human memory and (ii) the DDC, which lets us easily find books by subject matter.

Mankind has always had systems. Customs are systems, and they have consequences. While sorting books in the Annex recently, I saw a book from a foreign publisher that had the wording on the spine “upside down.” That is, instead of craning your neck to the right to read the title, you craned your neck to the left.

It’s especially annoying when most books are the other way, but I realized one distinct advantage of this “foreign” way of printing spines: The beginning of the text is always at the same height.

If the spine wording always starts from the same level, i.e. from the shelf, and reads up, it is much easier to scan a bookshelf for titles.

During the Boil Alert, I also realized a hidden health benefit of drinking tea– properly, one brings the water to a rolling boil first. I felt virtuous and safe.


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