Saturday, January 23, 2010

More on Catastrophes

Funny, the extent to which we're brainwashed, the extent to which we are, most of us, committed to being part of the herd, to looking to someone else, some supposedly expert person, to tell us how to think and what to do. (You’ve heard my views on experts before.)

When I was a young woman, I started opening taps in public bathrooms with my elbow. I'd seen how poor people's habits of hygiene were, and epidemics of this and that were beginning to move fiercely here and there. I thought it was a good idea, but was also secretly ashamed, having been made to feel foolish about my obsession with cleanliness when I was a child. I'd hardly have imagined that years later, I'd see this elbow routine recommended in pamphlets and books on hygiene, that, along with pushing doors open with your back and not putting your handbag on the bathroom floor, etc, etc. All of these were old habits for me but it would take the threat of vicious, swiftly speading viruses before their basic good sense would be evident.

We all believe there's nothing to be done about earthquakes. They arrive of their own volition and in their own intensities, and we can’t tell when they will come. I don't believe that. I've already said on this blog that if we keep pumping massive amounts of viscous matter (as in, oil and pitch) and natural gases out of the earth, we're removing cushions that the earth's mantle needs. It stands to reason – otherwise they wouldn't be there. It's the equivalent of saying we can take air out of our lungs, or water out of our bodies, and have it make no difference. But the earth isn't alive, is it? Or is it?

I've seen one article that suggests that the earthquake was caused (perhaps accidentally) by the massive manipulation of waves in the ionosphere, but I'm not going there till I find out whether it's from loonies, mischief makers or serious people. I think it's within the realm of possibility, and I'm as far from New Age as anybody could get. A bit of a conspiracy theorist maybe, but that's just because I believe Donne and "doubt wisely". I don't see why I should bow down and worship science and expertise that is demonstrably less scientific and expert as the days go by. Makes a lot more sense to me to worship an inscrutable God. At least he’s up front and says his ways are higher than mine and I’ll only start to figure him out after long study.

But we've been programmed remarkably well. We trust our banks and insurers to be reliable, our doctors to be skilled, and our levees to hold, until something disastrous happens. Consider, after all, how we've behaved since the economic collapse. Have people changed their banking habits, switched their business away from the Big Banks? Not that I've heard. Those very banks are making enormous profits once again. We know those experts are greedy robber barons who ruined – wait for it – the world economy, but we trust them with our hard earned pence anyway.

Consider that in 1975, E.B. White wrote an essay about how vulnerable the city of New York was to precisely the kind of attack that arrived in 2001. But E.B. White was a literary man, not an expert on war. What would he know?

So even if no one else is interested, I'll try to find out what the Chinese, and anyone else studying the matter, have discovered in their efforts to predict earthquakes. The devastation in Haiti would have occurred to no purpose if we, in Haiti and elsewhere, don't try to learn all the lessons it can teach us. There are obvious ones about helping one another, building homes and offices better, the importance of re-forestation, and so on, and there are less obvious ones about, say, how to move with dispatch when catastrophes happen. Why, for instance, is aid getting to Haitians so slowly? There was an interesting sermon at mass this week about how good Jesus was at crowd control. The people were pressing in on him, so he got in a boat and put out to sea and preached from there. No danger then, of people crushing one another in their rush to get close to him. Similarly, he sat people down before he fed them and distributed the food so they all got. Maybe we should check with him?

We’ve learned from recent tsunami events and there’s now a warning system that’s been proved to work. I think there are efforts we can make to at least foresee when earthquakes might happen, and so prevent the kind of massive loss of life and wholesale devastation that's occurred in Haiti. Selah!

Friday, January 22, 2010

EL NUMERO UNO takes musical shape with Cathy Nosaty

Friday, January 22 2:00 p.m.

I sat in on readings of EL NUMERO UNO last week. Our director, ahdri zina mandiela, lets me visit as the play takes shape. Thanks, ahdri! I appreciate it.

Long time since I’ve been this side of a stage.

This week the cast is on its feet, Astrid Janson’s dazzling costumes are being fitted, Kimberly Purtell is working on lighting design, and Cathy Nosaty is busy with the music. And that’s just a little bit of what’s going on.

A while back, I promised more about some of the people who are part of the creative team. It won’t be everybody because so many amazing folks are working to make UNO happen, but I’ll do my best. I thought I’d focus on the behind-the scenes folks, whom the public don’t usually pay attention to quite as much as they pay attention to the actors.

I’m going to the theatre a bit later to listen in as Cathy, our sound designer, works with the cast, and serendipitously – well, sort of – today we feature Cathy, whose talents are multifarious. An award-winning musician, composer, conductor and music educator, Cathy was one of the first recipients of The Banff Centre's Paul D. Fleck fellowships. Like another friend of mine who hails from Winnipeg, she’s also a poet-of-the-moment, an e-mail rhymester who lets no time stir before she delivers a message in verse!

So here’s Cathy’s bio-note, a missive in the meticulous manner of Chef Trenton of Cochonville, punctiliously penned by Cathy herself.

Thanks Cathy! Especially for transforming my likl Uno tune!

“Cathy is delighted to be part of the creative team for EL NUMERO UNO! She has created scores for theatre productions for regional and independent theatres across Canada and her work has been heard on international stages with Ronnie Burkett’s Theatre Of Marionettes. At LKTYP: GHOSTS AND LADDERS (Dynamo Theatre), THERE’S A MOUSE IN MY HOUSE (Carousel Players), COMET IN MOOMINLAND (Manitoba Theatre For Young People) and the LKTYP productions I THINK I CAN, THE MAN WHOSE MOTHER WAS A PIRATE and THE NUTMEG PRINCESS. Documentary film scores include BIODAD, BELOVED: THE DOMINICAN SISTERS OF ST. CECILIA, and the animated series DARK YEARS co-composed with her partner Mark Korven. Last year she was Assistant Conductor/Keyboardist for the Canadian company of JERSEY BOYS and has been nominated for four Dora Awards for original music, sound design and musical direction. “

Monday, January 18, 2010

Can we avoid catastrophes like the earthquake in Haiti?

First, manners. Best wishes for 2010! Hope you were fortified in body and spirit over Christmas, Kwanzaa and/or Hanukkah, and that you are warm and well and anticipating a peaceful, productive year.

So hard to say that with Haiti on my mind. There’s something apocalyptic about the devastation caused by the earthquake on January 12, which occurred at 4:53 pm and was also felt in Jamaica, in the parishes of Portland and Kingston and St Andrew. The terrible ruin and the rising death toll urge us to consider what can be done, if anything, to avoid its ever happening again, in Haiti or anywhere else.

Haiti is on the Gonave Microplate, a narrow sliver of the earth's crust at the edge of the larger Caribbean Plate which is south of it and extends over most of the Caribbean Sea. Chris Rowan has an explanation of the event at

The earthquake occurred along the Enriquillo Fault, part of a ‘strike-slip feature’ that joins the Yallahs-Plantain Garden Fault and separates the Gonave plate from the Caribbean Plate. (For non-geographers, think of a fault as a fracture or break running along at a certain point in the earth’s crust. Rock on one side of the break can move sideways with respect to rock on the other side, or rock on one side can move up and the other side, down. Sideways movements are called strike-slip; up-down movements are called dip-slip. The earth can do a combination movement as well.)

Rowan says, “There is nothing particularly unusual about this earthquake given the tectonic context. … however, Haiti is a very poor country... so ...its government was not in a position to really do much to prepare for the inevitable large earthquake, leaving tens of thousands to suffer the consequences.”

(One hopes things are being done about the inevitable super quake that is predicted for the San Andreas Fault.)

What is deeply distressing is that, according to a briefing on naturenews

‘…a team led by Paul Mann at the University of Texas at Austin has been monitoring this fault for some years. In a presentation to the 18th Caribbean Geological Conference in 2008, the team pointed out that their models showed a slip rate of around 8 millimetres per year on the fault. ...they warned that this, combined with the fact that the last known major earthquake near Haiti was in 1751, could add up to yield "~2 meters of accumulated strain deficit, or a Mw=7.2 earthquake if all is released in a single event today".

One of the team members, geophysicist Eric Calais of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, said in an e-mail to Nature: "Unfortunately we were pretty much right on."’

So there was some advance warning. The truth is of course that all the countries on the edge of the plate – which includes a big chunk of the northern coastline of South America as well as central America and most of the islands in the Caribbean – ought to be on continuous earthquake watch.

But what does the state of watchfulness entail? What can people who live in earthquake-prone zones do? We know some of the things: have adequate building codes that are rigorously enforced; conduct regular earthquake drills in schools and workplaces so people know what to do when they feel the first tremors; have medical kits widely available and encourage people to get basic training in first aid; maintain emergency services that have protocols in which they are well versed and the resources to execute them. Perhaps, adapt some of the building styles of the Japanese who have endured this kind of seismic activity for ages...

The ideal thing, though, would be to know when the earthquake is coming.

There is one famous case where the successful forecasting of a quake led to the saving of many lives. In 1975 Chinese officials ordered the evacuation of the city of Haicheng (population one million) mere days before a quake that had a 7.3 magnitude. Only a small portion of the population was hurt or killed. If the city had not been evacuated, fatalities and injuries could have been in the hundreds of thousands.

The observation of animal behaviour was in part what led to the prediction of that earthquake. Geologists tend to dismiss strange animal behaviour as a reliable predictor of earthquakes, but biologist Rupert Sheldrake disagrees. He admits that odd animal behaviour doesn't occur before all quakes, but his research on major quakes such as those in California (1994) and Greece and Turkey (1999) identifies peculiar activity in caged birds, dogs and cats preceding the tremors. The Chinese continue to study animal behaviour as a predictor – snakes, horses, cows and pigs all behaved oddly prior to the Haicheng event.

Sheldrake, who feels that more research into this predictor should be done, proposes a hotline or web site where people could report any strange behaviour in their animals. The incoming messages could be analyzed by computer to determine where they originated and pinpoint any areas from which there were sudden surges in incoming calls or e-mails, since these might indicate that a quake was imminent. Checks would have to be made to ensure that the behaviour couldn't be attributed to other sources and, so as to avoid issuing false warnings, the animal data would be used in conjunction with other monitors such as seismological measurements.

Sheldrake feels that "Such a project would capture the imagination of millions of people, encourage large-scale public participation and research... What is holding this research back is not money but dogmatism and narrow-mindedness."

All this, according to National Geographic

There are now many amateur weather watchers worldwide. Perhaps bloggers, tweeters and other internet users could take on the project. Surely there are scientists who would collate the data, and surely it would be better (and less costly) to evacuate and find that an alarm was false, than fail to follow the animal cues and face devastation. The world is full of towns and cities that are not earthquake proof. Haiti is by no means alone in that respect. And increasingly we are being taught that we should listen to the planet. It can speak eloquently to us if we don't decide that we are determined not to hear.

It's hard to imagine that listening to the dogs and cats might have spared Haiti. For sure, our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Haiti.