Monday, August 25, 2014

Summertime and Truth: Reading about Courage and about Quebec

My Internet Goes Down

We changed Internet providers.  Such a change is never particularly easy, and the family was offline for about a week during the transition.

During this time, I still had my iPad that could connect to the cell network, so I kept up with my emails.  But I couldn't keep up with blogging or writing comments on other people's blogs or anything like that.  It was too awkward, and sometimes it just didn't work at all.  I stopped trying to do these things.

My Reading Goes Up

 My goodness. Who KNEW I would have so much free time in one week? This was actually a shocking revelation.  In one week,  I read two books. Neither book was about nuclear energy.


The first book was Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why, by Laurence Gonzales.  Gonzales describes fairly horrific situations.  In some cases, people chose high-risk activities: attempting a new route to a summit.  In other cases, people found themselves in high-risk situations: a small plane crashed in the Andes, and a young woman managed to walk back to civilization.  In either event, people found themselves where it would be easy to die, but not so easy to survive.

How did the survivors make it? What actions or traits did they have in common? Gonzales is very clear that even if someone does everything right, the person may die.  The forces against them may be just too great.  However, bearing that in mind, how did people survive?

Climber getting ready to rappel
The survivors all assessed their situation realistically, but kept hope alive by making intermediate goals and achieving them. For example, the two climbers on the new route had an accident, and one of them suffered a broken leg.  With cooperation (lowering the broken-leg climber down, about fifty feet at a time) and intermediate goals, and frankly, with luck...they both made it off the mountain.

What struck me about this book was the emphasis on realism.  The people assess the situation accurately. They determine what can be achieved, and what cannot be achieved.  They decide what we can do, and when we have to reassess the situation.

And they worked as a team, if more than one person was in danger. Notice all the words "we" in the sentences above.

Life Raft
Air Force photo from Wikipedia
If one person helped another person, both were far more likely to survive.  The helper had more motivation to be clear-eyed. The person being helped was confident that though his own efforts might be limited, his efforts would be part of the plan. For example, on a life raft with five people, two survived by helping each other.

Note: Why two out of five? Two of the people on the raft started the trip drunk. They ended up drinking seawater, going mad, and jumping out of the life raft. One person was too badly injured to survive: she was injured as the original boat was sinking.  The two sober people in the raft helped each other and helped the badly injured person, and those two survived.

About Nuclear

I could not help but compare the clear-eyed realism of the survivors with the endless Fear Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) being spread by nuclear opponents.  "This could happen, or maybe that could happen! Be very afraid!"  On one of my email lists, there is a quote from an anti-nuclear screed claiming a rise in radiation from uranium daughter products in fuel rods. They claim this rise could happen under some circumstances, and it would take place 1.2 million years from now.

I began to think that if people really buy into this FUD, their mental processes can get warped.  If you are worried about a radiation rise that might/maybe take place in 1.2 million years, are you seeing the world clearly? Will you look out for cars when you cross the street?  Will you be able to tolerate pain if you find you must walk down a mountain from a plane crash?

I began to think about anti-nuclear FUD as a bigger problem than whether or not nuclear energy continues in this country.  At this point,  I believe anti-nuclear FUD is a symptom of a world-view that simply cannot work for people.  That is another reason to fight FUD, but the battle may be bigger than I thought it was.

Sigh. Well, time for another book.

Quebec Mystery: How the Light Gets In

For a complete change of pace.  I also read Louise Penny's mystery novel: How the Light Gets In. This is the second-to-the latest of the Inspector Gamache novels.  The latest one has just been released: I expect the bookstore to call me any day that my book order has arrived.  (Yes, for Pete's sake.  I am not rich, but I often order hardbacks of Penny's novels.)

Penny's novels are set in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, the area just north of the Vermont border.  Her books have fascinating, intricate plots, and real characters who change over the course of the series. People fall in love, and fall out of love. Inspector Gamache makes brilliant deductions, and he makes serious mistakes.

Penny's writing is both clear and poetic.  She usually gives a talk in Vermont when her books are released, and I always go to hear it.  (To give you an idea of how her books are constructed, the title "How the Light Gets In" comes from Leonard Cohen's Anthem.)

Montreal near St. Louis Square
The books are set mostly in southern Quebec, but some are set in other regions of Quebec Province, including Montreal. Without giving away the plots, I can tell you that one theme in the books is about the way the Cree were treated during the initial stages of the James Bay Project--building the Hydro Quebec dams. In the books, there are various dangerous ramifications to this James Bay theme.

Yes, Penny's books are "just" a set of mystery novels, but every now and again, it is good for me to read something from Quebec.  You see, in Vermont, the people against Vermont Yankee often praise the "clean hydropower we can get from Quebec."  Well, yes we can get it, except for the transmission constraints (and that is another blog post entirely).  But the Hydro Quebec power is also a story of pain and tears.  It's worth remembering that, even in the course of a mystery novel.

HydroQuebec Spillway
Back On-Line

I suppose it will be a while before I read another book, since I am back on-line now!

But I have resolved to take some time to read books in the future.  This off-line experience showed me the value of reading books and contemplating them in (relative) silence, without the chatter of the Internet.  One book helped me realize the value of clear thinking and courage. Another reconfirmed that I do not buy into the everything-is-so-rosy view of Quebec hydro power.

Clarity and contemplation.  I'm going to try it.


Howard Shaffer said...

Good for you!

I've nearly concluded that those who fall for the FUD have a different world view that is genetic. It's not just for nuclear power.
Look at the recent local controversy about fluoride in drinking water!

Meredith Angwin said...

Thank you Howard!

I think some parts of fear are genetic, in that I think we all have an anxiety set-point. Some little kids are more anxious than other little kids. I think they probably are born that way.

But I don't think this anxiety set-point necessarily turns into fear of nuclear or fear of fluoride--not without a lot of help from parents and friends. I mean, all over the world, parents spend a great deal of time teaching children what is dangerous and what is not dangerous.

For example:

- You don't have to run away from a cat, but you must stay away from moving cars.

- You can usually pet a dog, but don't take the dog's food away or pull its tail.

And so forth. Anxious and non-anxious kids learn basically the same things.

I think there is some extra-added-teaching when people are learning to be afraid of radiation, fluorides, vaccines. I don't think it is inborn. I think the parents teach it.

Where did the parents learn this stuff? They learned the theory from their own parents, I think, and then added examples on their own.

GregLondon said...

One pattern in a lot of the fears that run rampant these days are fear of things that happen extremely rarely. Big example: people afraid of vaccines. The disease the vaccine prevents is rare and the bad-reaction-they-are-afraid-of-from-the-vaccine is even more rare or not even causually related. In those situations, people can come up with some fear that is completely not-reality-based, and because the thing causing the fear doesn't happen often enough to correct the fear, the misplaced fear never faces a reality that proves it wrong.

Growing up in the midwest, I never saw a tornado, but they were common enough that you didn't live in complete abject terror of them. There would be a warning, you'd go to the basement, repeat. You'd see the results of them once in a while in person, and the damage they caused would always make the TV news, but you went through them enough that you weren't cripplingly terrorized by the thought of a tornade.

And for reasons I don't understand, good outcomes don't seem to have any effect on the negative fear. Like all the millions of kids who get a vaccine with no negative reaction, that won't have any effect on someone who is terrified of vaccines.

Nuclear power is sort of in that realm. Plants are operating successfully day in and day out. But that doesn't seem to affect the irrational fear of a nuclear meltdown. And a one-in-a-million failure is so rare that its impossible to correct the over-amplified fear of failure that relates to that sort of failure as if it were 50/50 or some such thing.

Anonymous said...

There have been risk perception studies out the wazoo and they all boil down to two components: probability of occurrence and potential consequences. The latter always trumps the former. That's why we're willing to tolerate 20,000 deaths annually from automobile accidents but freak out over nuclear "accidents". A car wreck kills a few people and likely gets no national media coverage. Contrast that with a "disaster" like TMI. No one dies or is injured yet the dominant message (and therefore perception) is "What If?" The industry really needs to emphasize that even a severe accident has relatively minor and very manageable consequences.