Thursday, September 27, 2012

Can You Improve Your Odds of Surviving a Disaster?

The answer in The Unthinkable:  Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why, by Amanda Ripley, is a resounding “Yes.”

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and WhyRipley weaves survivor tales, scientific study, government policy, and more into a powerful narrative that provides amazing insight and life saving perspective into our understanding of disaster and how we respond to it.  She also tells us that we can improve our responses.  Something so simple as actually reading those emergency cards on all airplanes and choosing an exit to use if needed can make the difference between surviving a crash and not.

From survivor stories and scientific research, we are learning how our brains function in a disaster.  When something unexpected and threatening happens, most of us either do the wrong thing or do nothing at all.  Restaurant patrons finish dinner while the room they are dining in fills with smoke.  Airline passengers laugh when a flight attendant calls, "brace, brace."  People who should be evacuating their offices take time to turn off computers, search for the book they are reading, or make a phone call.

Some people even make up stories about what is happening – and believe them.  In a large scale disaster, victims often think it is happening only to them.  People exiting the Twin Towers expected to find activity on the street going on as usual.  They were shocked by what they actually confronted.

And, little things can make a big difference.  For example, more women were injured escaping from the Twin Towers than men because their shoes were a serious hindrance and had to be discarded.  Several survivors reported that they had to skirt piles of women's shoes in the stair wells as they descended from upper floors.  In a disaster, something relatively insignificant can become an enormous obstacle.

For all that, this is a surprisingly hopeful book.  Any of us can be caught in a disaster at any time and those of us involved are the true first responders.  With a little luck, a little information, and a little planning, we can save ourselves and possibly others.

We can't do much about the luck, but we can do a good deal about the information.  Something so simple as actually reading those emergency cards on all airplanes and choosing an exit to use if needed can make the difference between surviving a crash and not.

Ripley outlines some basic steps we can all take to improve our chances of surviving and some web sites we can visit for more information.  Some of the steps are basic and easy.  Others are more far reaching and complex. 
She even offers a few good suggestions to help you decide what you should be worrying about.

So, what disasters worry you?  Have you made any preparations?  Let us know!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What You See Is Not Necessarily What You Get

Until It's Over, by Nicci French

Astrid Bell is a bicycle messenger living in a house with six housemates who are all pretty much life stragglers -- those Peter Pan people who should have started a career, but are still languishing in that gray area between young adult and full-blown grown-up.  They have a history together that includes friendship, romance, and an array of interdependencies.

But all good things come to an end.  The housemate who owns the house wants to live there alone with his new girlfriend.  The house is breaking up and everyone has to find new living arrangements.  Of course, this comes at the worst possible time.

Astrid has just been accidently knocked off of her bicycle by a neighbor who is then found murdered near the house.  In fairly short order, two other women are murdered and it is the hapless Astrid who finds the bodies.  It becomes clear that she is somehow connected to the murders and, to some extend, she and the housemates are all suspects.

That stress and the stress of breaking up the household lead to arguements as the housemates turn on one another.  Eventually, the killer among them is identified and arrested to the astonishment of all.

That's the first part of the story.  It basically shows what is happening, follows the breakdown of long-standing relationships, and possibly shows how little we really know about those closest to us.  What you think you know at this point, though, is mostly just enough off to be entirely wrong.

The second part is from the point of view of someone else, a sort of ghost in the machine.  Incidents that earlier seemed just the product of the group's disintegration begin to take on a new, more sinister meaning.  One of the housemates has been gathering information and then using it to push just a little at a weak point and watch the havoc that develops.

I enjoyed this book.  The first part did a good job of revealing the characters, their interrelationships, their little cliques and grudges, and the peculiarities of their housing arrangements.  The second part did a good job of getting into the head of the killer and revealing both shrewdness and madness.

The author, Nicci French, by the way, is actually the husband and wife writing team of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

One Book You Must Read Before You Vote

End This Depression NOW by Paul Krugman

I have read a number of books about how we got into the financial crisis of 2007 and I have a fair understanding of what happened.  That's all well and good, but that little bit of understanding left me feeling a little hopeless, as if it was all just too complex to really manage.  Even worse, it left me feeling that the most common solutions being offered were not likely to be very helpful.  

book cover In End This Depression NOW, Paul Krugman takes a different approach.  He considers what needs to be done right now to get our economy moving again and he offers a number of very specific suggestions.  Better still, his suggestions make sense because he supports them with analysis, metaphors, and examples -- all based on facts and "real world" observations.  These are things we can follow for ourselves, things we can consider from our own experience, things we can actually verify.

It makes you realize how much fluff is puffing up discussions of economic crisis and what needs to be done to deal with it.  I don't want to hear that "we all know government can't create jobs, but..."  I, for one, do not "know" that at all.  I believe government can create jobs and I know it can save jobs.  It just does not make sense not to do that.  

So, one of the things I like so much about this book is that it does make sense.  Not everything may be "right," but at least Krugman is reasoning from facts in the form of actual data.  He is drawing conclusions from past similar situations in a "this was the situation; here is what was done; here was the result" process that lets the reader see the reasoning.  Then you actually have something of substance to agree or disagree with.

Krugman points out that we have the same workforce, the same knowledge base, and the same resources today that we had just before the bubble burst back in 2007.  The solutions we need to get those things moving again are really not all that difficult nor, really, all that painful.

Here is my favorite story from the book.  A husband does not take good care of the family car and especially the electrical system.  One day, it will not start.  The wife wants to try a new battery, but the husband scoffs at the idea that a $30,000 car could be laid low by something so simple as a $100 battery.  He says the trouble is clearly something more dramatic, more complicated, and far more expensive.  The family, he says, must learn to walk and take buses until the real problem can be identified and resolved.

The wife has a problem, Krugman says, but not with the car.  Point taken.

I love this book -- so much that I read it straight through not just once, but twice.  The reasoning is sound, well thought out, and well documented.  The suggested fixes are doable and seem more likely to succeed than anything I have heard so far.  And if they are tried and fail?  Krugman says simply try something else until the solution is found.

Best of all, this is a hopeful book.  Before you drift off into painful hopelessness and dig in to the long haul of sacrifice, read this book!