Monthly Archives: November 2016

“The Cure for Catastrophe – How We Can Stop Manufacturing Natural Disasters” by Robert Muir-Wood

Published by Basic Books, 2016, 278 pages plus extensive documentation.

This book carried me across the shock of the election. I snagged it from the New Arrivals Shelf at Stockton. It is a fine example of one of my favorite genres, science for non-scientists.

One important thing I learned is that denial (as in Climate Change denial) is nothing new. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 was “re-branded” into a fire. True, highly destructive fires broke out, but the source of trouble was an earthquake. The City of San Francisco did not want to study the fault on which it stands.

What catastrophes does Muir-Wood discuss? Fires, earthquakes (and associated tsunamis), hurricanes (and their storm surges), other types of floods, and drought. Makes you wonder how humankind has persisted. He leaves out tornados and the mysterious derecho.

The point of this book is that most casualties during floods, earthquakes, etc. result from poor decisions. Housing in flood plains. Skyscraper apartment houses build without reference to building codes or advanced engineering principles.

Muir-Wood throws EVERYTHING at the problem, especially (to my delight) literature and history. Writing about a series of storms, he wisecracks “Gabriel Garcia Marquez could not make this up!”

The day after I started reading “The Cure for Catastrophe”, I found two related articles in the New York Times (November 4, 2016). On page A4 “Italian Town Still ‘Broken’ by Quake Years Ago” and on page A15 “San Francisco Sues Over Sinking Skyscraper, Symbol of a Rush to Build”.

Each of these stories can be understood better if analyzed from Muir-Wood’s point of view.

Why did this book help me shake off my post-election gloom? Because Muir-Wood is a super intelligent technological optimist. He can see a path forward to improved safety and health for all. He provides examples of people, cities and countries that are improving their catastrophe management. He invented the term “risk culture”, I think. And he was kind enough to forego use of the phrase “internet of things” until very late in his discussion. I haven’t quite integrated the IoT into my mental toolbox.

Read this book! And use it to demand good, science based public policy from our elected officials.

Positive Micro – reflections on yoga and language

The prefix “micro” has gotten a bad rap. Nobody wants a boss who “micromanages”. “Micro-aggressions” are committed by culturally insensitive boors. Most of us meet “micro” in science class when the metric system of measurements is introduced. Only some of us learn to love it. (Digression – I’ll do a great deal to avoid the old fashioned “English” system, with its acres and Angstoms and Roentgens and worst of all, “feet of head”. It’s an engineering thing, a unit of pressure. There’s the femtojoule. The exawatt. I’m not making these up.)

But here’s the nicest “micro” you will ever meet – the microadjustment! You can do it yourself. This is the little wriggle that turns an uninteresting yoga posture into a delicious stretch. A little shift of weight. A tiny realignment. Sometimes this movement is so small your teacher and fellow students won’t even see it. Sometimes it’s a little bigger.

In addition to making you more comfortable (or less comfortable in a good way), it signals to your teacher that you have a mind (not to mention body) of your own, and you are going to do things YOUR way. A good teacher will be cheered by this.

The microadjustment is what lets me take ownership of my yoga practice. My favorite five syllable word! May the “micro” be with you.

“Commonwealth” by Ann Patchett

This is the fourth book by Ann Patchett that I have read, and I felt disappointed. Too “ordinary”. Patchett’s suburbia is a dull place. A man and woman fall in love and divorce their spouses in order to marry. He has four children, she has two. They constitute the “common wealth” of the title. All six children suffer.

I couldn’t help comparing this book with Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.

Each deals with children. In each case, events at a party are pivotal. Patchett describes a christening party that turns into a dark, ironic version of the Biblical story of loaves and fishes. A marriage is destroyed. Ferrante’s event is a wedding party, at which the groom betrays the bride, then rapes her.

In each tale, a child is lost. In Commonwealth the oldest of the six children dies from an allergic reaction to a bee sting. His confused siblings watch uncomprehendingly. Every parent’s nightmare. But the loss described in the last of the Neapolitan novels is even worse – a tiny girl disappears, from a bright street on a sunny day. She’s gone. Her death cannot even be confirmed. Foul play is suspected. Ferrante has a knack for dealing with the most harsh blows that life can inflict.

In each story, someone tells or publishes a story that “belongs” to another person, with disturbing repercussions. Elena (Ferrante gives her own name to her heroine) writes about her friend Lila’s factory employment, bringing down retribution and violence. One of the neglected daughters in Commonwealth tells her lover, a prominent author, about the tragic death of her older stepbrother. He appropriates the story but denies its origins. His book is made into a movie, causing terrible pain to the family.

In my earlier blog post about Ferrante, I described My Brilliant Friend as being worthy of the category of “literary fiction”. The rest of her quartet also meets that standard. Commonwealth, in my opinion, doesn’t make it. Too bad, because I would certainly include Patchett’s wonderful Bel Canto in that category, and I plan to continue to read her work.

The Neapolitan Quartet, by Elena Ferrante – Books 2, 3 and 4

See my blog entry of July 13 for comments on the first of these books, My Brilliant Friend.

Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels comprise a tetralogy, or quartet. My only other experience with a literary quartet is the magnificent Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. The Raj Quartet has been described as “sprawling”. I would say panoramic. The Neapolitan novels are intensely focused on one woman’s life, and within it, one intense friendship.

I read the three books that followed My Brilliant Friend (1300+ pages total!) in a fast and furious binge that took less than a month. Just couldn’t stop!

The Story of a New Name is about gender and relationships. Normally I’m not charitable towards authors who provide an index of characters. Clear and thoughtful writing should render that crutch unnecessary. But I forgive Ferrante because the complexity of her books, with their multitude of characters, reflects “real” life.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay continues the lives of Elena (the narrator) and her best friend Lila, as does Book 4, The Story of the Lost Child. Farrante doesn’t back off from shocking plot twists. The story continues until Elena is past age 60 and Lila has, apparently intentionally, disappeared, dropped out of sight.

What is stranger than a disappearance? In my long life, this has happened twice – two people, not “closest friends” but more than acquaintances, have disappeared – one almost 40 years ago, the other about 15 years ago. I have no intention of writing about them, or of seeking further information. But I cannot help being fascinated by Ferrante’s literary take on this.

One reviewer describes the Neapolitan novels as an “education in being female”. I recommend them to men on that basis. Very likely you will learn a great deal. Ferrante (whoever she is) is an author for the ages.