Friday, December 31, 2010

Lessons from 2010

I generally view my life as a continuous flow of experiences and personal development. Sometimes I control my circumstances, and at other times I react to events beyond my control.

The New Year is an opportunity, albeit rather arbitrary, to look back over my recent life.

Here are a few things I learned about myself, or that were reinforced for me, during 2010:

  • I am capable of taking decisions and acting upon them.
  • I can undertake a large project and see it to fruition (NaNoWriMo).
  • I am realizing that I am increasingly known and appreciated within my professional community.
  • I have a much clearer idea of what I want to do with my life, both creatively and in terms of my personal mission.
  • I still react badly to extreme events beyond my control (the Carmel forest fire).
I have achieved many of the things I planned to do with my life in 2010. In the coming months, I intend to continue growing and developing in the same way. More writing, better use of my time, and focusing my professional efforts on the work I enjoy most and do best.

Happy 2011!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Multiverse experience

The theory of the multiverse speculates that every action or decision creates a split, where each possibility actually happens in a different universe. I often think about this when something dramatic happens. It is easy to think "Let this not have happened", and then imagine a world where it did not happen. I thought like this when I heard that the Columbia space shuttle had exploded on re-entry, when Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated, and, of course, on 9/11.

Recently I have been thinking about this because of a book I read (to be discussed in a future post), and today something happened that made me very aware of this way of thinking. My husband was on a train that caught fire. He was unharmed, though about a quarter of the passengers suffered smoke inhalation or were injured by broken glass or when they jumped off the train to escape. Nobody received any burns.

Along with my relief that Ivor survived a potentially serious accident, I started thinking about the universe where he died. The version of me in that universe must be thinking "Let this not have happened", and I can only hope she finds some solace in imagining my situation.

Ultimately, this way of thinking is not all that helpful. Despite the speculations of SF writers, I don't think there is any way these different universes can communicate with each other. All we can do is imagine all the alternative situations that might have happened in given circumstances. So many things could have happened differently, and there is no point in regretting that we are in our particular version of the multiverse.

The only advantage of imagining alternatives is to create some emotional distance between yourself and your situation. If you become aware that things could have happened differently (and perhaps did, somewhere), you realize this is just one version of your life, so you can be more detached about it.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Lessons from the Carmel Fire

The forest fire on Mount Carmel was put out on Sunday night, after three and a half days of intensive efforts. Here are some of the things I have learned from this tragedy:

First of all, it seems that Israel needs a serious public fire safety education program. The fire was probably started by someone's negligence, and the thought that a moment's carelessness can lead to such a vast disaster is very scary.

I was deeply disturbed by the seeming lack of coordination between the various emergency services, at least at first. Ideally, I would have expected there to be clear procedures defining the responsibilities of each body and the chain of command. I heard there were cases where the police were ordering an evacuation of certain streets, while the Mayor was saying he hadn't ordered this and people should stay at home.

Israel's fire services are the smallest and least equipped in the developed world, which is incredible considering that Israel is a hot and dry country that sees forest fires each summer, and that the value of land here is high. I have been speculating that perhaps part of the problem is that young Israelis wishing to help save lives and property are more likely to think they will do this during their military service. I don't think I have heard Israeli children wanting to be fire fighters when they grow up. Perhaps now the status of fire fighters will improve.

The lack of coordination and the sorry state of Israel's fire services do not bode well for the home front during the next war.

Of course, my main feeling after this ecological and human tragedy is deep sadness. But there are also some behaviours and attitudes that made me angry:

  • People who stopped their cars or slowed down on the roads to see the fire and take photos, making it difficult for the emergency vehicles to get into and out of the crisis area, and creating traffic jams that slowed the evacuation.
  • People who later tried to enter evacuated areas to get a good view of the fire fighting planes, giving the police extra work in trying to save their lives.
  • People who were evacuated and returned to their homes before they were allowed to, presumably to try to save something they had left behind, risking their lives and endangering the emergency staff who had to evacuate them again.
  • Those who quickly assumed that the fire was started either deliberately or negligently by Druze or Arabs. This racism is not helpful, and even if it turns out to have been negligence by two Druze youths who are being investigated, this should not lead to blaming their whole community.
  • Arsonists who started other fires in other parts of the country, forcing the fire fighters to split their forces. The cruelty of such actions is staggering.
  • The Israeli Minister of the Interior, Eli Yishay, who will not take ministerial responsibility and resign. In other developed countries, it is considered the decent thing for a minister to resign when something goes wrong. Here, Israeli politicians' first concern is to shift the blame onto someone else (often previous governments) and avoid or deny any responsibility. I would say "Shame on you!", but they are impervious to the whole concept of shame or decency.
  • Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, who claimed that the fire was punishment for people not observing the Sabbath. Expressing such opinions is offensive, divisive, and shows an incredible degree of hutzpa.
Looking on the bright side, there are also many things I am grateful for:

  • The immediate response of many other countries in sending Israel their fire fighters, planes, and equipment. It is gratifying to know that in cases of ecological disasters at least, the world does not hate Israel. It is also good to be on the receiving end of the sort of help Israel routinely sends, such as Israeli field hospitals and rescue teams sent overseas following earthquakes and other disasters.
  • The fire fighters were able to prevent the loss of many houses (though not all), and even managed to save most of the animals in a wildlife sanctuary on the Carmel.
  • The Israeli public demonstrated its caring side when many volunteers came out to help the emergency staff and the evacuees.
  • And finally, this morning I was woken up at 4 a.m. by the sound of the first rain! Even though it would have been more useful earlier, it is still going to help prevent the fire from breaking out again in the burned areas, and I am always grateful for rain.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Fire in the Carmel

Yesterday (December 2, 2010) at about 11 a.m., a fire started in the Carmel forest. At the time, Ivor was in the nearby Haifa University, and could see the flames from the Eshkol tower. He came home at about 2 p.m., when they started evacuating the university.

It soon became apparent that this was a very serious fire, and the fire fighters could not control it. We were instructed to close the windows and remain indoors. Here is the view of the smoke from our balcony during the afternoon. Note how the sun was covered by the smoke. It got dark early.

We started listening to the local radio station, Radio Haifa. They were our main news source during the 2006 Lebanon war, and the experience seems similar. Their professional and responsible reporting was careful to avoid reporting unconfirmed rumours, and they encouraged people to stay out of danger.

Soon we heard about the tragedies of this fire. A bus carrying cadet prison officers coming to help evacuate the Damon prison was caught in the flames, killing 40 people. Haifa's chief of police was following this bus and tried to help the victims, sustaining serious burns, and she is now in hospital in a critical condition. A few other fire fighters and police officers are injured or missing. The fire consumed Kibbutz Beit Oren after its residents were evacuated.

During the evening and night, the fire approached Tirat Karmel, a town just south of Haifa, which has been partially evacuated, and the Denia neighbourhood of Haifa, where some of the residents were told to leave in the early hours. The idea that the city itself might burn was alarming.

In the morning, the fire had moved south-west, and there was less smoke. Here is another view from the balcony this morning:

Several countries have sent firefighting planes and helicopters, equipment, and fire fighters, including Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Russia, the UK, Spain, Egypt and Jordan.

It is worrying to realize how our fire services have been underfunded and underequipped, despite repeated warnings of the potential for disaster. This is particularly bad since Israel is a dry country and has forest fires every summer, and is also often attacked by rockets that can cause fires. The failure of the emergency services to deal with this disaster does not bode well for the next war.

This fire is also the result of the very hot and dry weather. We have not yet had any significant rain this autumn, and temperatures have been around 30 degrees C throughout October and November.

The loss of life and property is tragic. It is also very sad to think that the beautiful Carmel forest has been completely destroyed, and they say it could take up to 50 years for it to recover. Two million trees have been burned down, and most of the wild animals that live in the forest (including wild boars and jackals) are unlikely to have escaped.

My conclusions from this event: First, it is important for officials to act on warnings, such as the repeated requests for increased fire fighting capabilities, before the disaster happens. Second, this fire was probably the result of arson (or negligence), which would make it a serious crime.

I mourn for the great losses in life, property, and nature, and hope for the quick rebuilding of the damaged homes and the restoration of the forest.

This week was supposed to be a happy one for Haifa. The Carmel Tunnels opened, and this weekend I was planning to attend the Festival of Festivals, a co-existence event held every weekend during December to celebrate Christmas, Hannuka, and the closest Moslem festival (their lunar calendar means this changes each year). This has now been cancelled, but I hope to go next weekend.