In Which Our Heroine's Own Lens Colors It

2 September 2005

I read the last two books in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series today. When I get to the end of a novel, if it's going well, I tend to gulp the ending down all at once, and that's how these went, only on the scale of 20 books instead of one.

I was satisfied. I may even have been more satisfied than I would have been if O'Brian had definitively ended the series before he died: it didn't have a chance to be too neatly tied up with a bow. There was a conclusion to at least one thread, and there were others left open, and that was all right. Not that I wouldn't have read a twenty-first or even a twenty-second book, given the chance, but I'm not raging at the injustice of death any more than usual tonight.

And speaking of the injustice of death -- I've been reading hurricane news rather than watching it on TV. We don't regularly watch TV news anyway; we have a daily paper delivered, and we read articles and feeds online, and that seems like enough. The thing that has gotten me about TV news in the past is how easy it is to parse its repetitions as renewed horrors. And the things it's reporting on are horrific, and I don't think we should ignore them -- but I also think that sometimes we can do more against injustice, more to relieve the effects of tragedy, if we save a little room in which to cope with it. If we can take a breath and think for a moment; if we are in charge of our rate of information flow rather than letting someone else control it.

This is probably not true for some people. Some people probably function better when that's not a variable they have to control, or not wholly. That mileage; there it goes varying again. But I've sat in front of the TV as the same footage played over and over again and the commentators repeated the same phrases in slightly different order, and it didn't help.

I also feel like shaking the non-geeks of the world by the shoulders and slapping them and saying, look, just because you didn't listen to us didn't mean we weren't there. Most of the people I read online are incensed that the President is saying no one expected the levees to break. I'm incensed, too. I'm also incensed when Bill Clinton says the same damn thing. Equally incensed? No; Bill Clinton has not had anything directly to do with FEMA for some years now. But still: stop saying that. It isn't true. My honest first reaction to reading that quote from the Pres was to mutter at the computer screen, "It isn't my fault you don't read Making Light."

Seriously: everyone I know knew the levees might very well break. The geeks all knew it. The nerds were saying so. You know, the people who had done the actual research? The ones who were getting paid to look into it? Those people. Yah. I don't expect everybody to be one. I don't expect that we're going to get geeks elected to public office. When I was a kid, I watched Richard Feynman dunk the little ring in his water glass, so I don't even expect that people are going to listen before it's too late. But for the love of Pete, could they please stop claiming that no one said anything in the first place? It's not true, and we don't really have the option of taking our marbles and going home; we have the same marble as everybody else, and it's the only home we've got just now.

To a certain extent, I think scientists, engineers, technical writers, people with any degree of scientific literacy, need to make communication a priority. When you're the one who gets the hard stuff, it's partly your job to put it in terms that other people can understand, if it's important. But there's only so much you can do in the face of willful ignorance and dismissive arrogance. Only so much you can do, and yet quitting isn't an option.

It looks very comfortable for politicians to be able to say that we couldn't have known. But we could. We did. And it all happened anyway.

We're all seeing our own issues in this disaster. I've read people talking about race, class, literacy, preparedness, self-reliance, community support. Some people are entirely full of it, of course, but people can say totally orthogonal things about a tragedy of this size and all be right. There is room to learn more than one thing. Or to fail to learn more than one, I suppose, but that's not the ideal case.

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