Tuesday, August 26, 2014

the prosecutor--and 1 "disastrously reassuring" quote

Fabio Picuti

To build his argument against the L'Aquila Seven, public prosecutor Fabio Picuti performed some remarkable pirouettes. Here's one detail from the trial that didn't make it into the final draft of my story:

To further assert that the scientists knew more than they let on, Picuti used an engineer from the US and a geoscientist from Russia as expert witnesses. The two represent extreme minority opinions about risk analysis and earthquake precursors that would be on par with climate change deniers. Not that that was of concern to Picuti. He only needed them to introduce doubt about the thoroughness of the March 31 meeting.

And introduce it they did. The American, a retired engineer who worked for the California Department of Transportation, shared his view that the Great Risk Commission’s assessment had been insufficient. In his opinion, the seven men should have more forcefully warned the residents of L’Aquila to steel themselves for the Big One. The Russian spoke to the idea that a swarm may be a prelude to a mainshock, but his testimony turned into something of a joke. English wasn’t allowed in the courtroom, but there was no Russian-Italian translator. So the Russian spoke in English, but the English-Italian translator kept stumbling over scientific terminology. At times, the defendants were the only people in the room who could accurately translate for the court.


De Bernardinis' comment about "energy discharge," was inexcusable. When I interviewed the other scientists, they were, and remain, furious about it. (De Bernardinis declined to be interviewed for my story.) I still kind of feel for the guy, though, even more so after reading the full transcript of the now-infamous television interview, from which the "energy discharge" line was plucked (~ min. 2:52). It showcases the difficulties of living with and communicating about risk. I had considered including something along these lines in the story: 

Even De Berardnins, whose single sentence became such a flashpoint, wasn’t as binary in his thinking as the sound bite suggests. In the rest of that television interview he is lucid about Abruzzo’s seismic hazard and the need to strike a balance between geographic reality and everyday life. “We have to be in a state of attention, without being in a state of anxiety… we have to be ready but at the same time untroubled.” That doesn’t sound like a man bent on deluding people, and even history’s most famous seismologist would have probably cut De Bernardinis some slack:

“[O]ccasionally, a professional man who has a good reputation in other fields is responsible for erroneous statements about earthquake occurrence and earthquake prediction. Even good geologists have been known to fall into such errors." - Charles Richter

Monday, August 25, 2014

more aftershocks

Giampaolo Giuliani
While reporting "The Aftershocks," I will never forget this comment from Giuliani, the self-anointed earthquake whisperer: “I don’t like very much to predict the future, because when you can see the bad things, people don’t want to hear from you.”

The motivations of a fraud can be mysterious. Some want riches or stardom, sure, but that explanation feels too tidy in the strange case of Giuliani. Famed seismologist Charles Richter probably came across more self-proclaimed earthquake oracles than anyone in history. Some of these individuals have loose screws, he once wrote, “but most of them are sane—at least in the clinical or legal sense, since they are not dangerous, and are not running around with bombs or guns. What ails them is exaggerated ego plus imperfect or ineffective education, so that they have not absorbed one of the fundamental rules of science—self-criticism. Their wish for attention distorts their perception of the facts, and sometimes leads them on into actual lying."

That pretty much sums it up, except the part about not being dangerous. I would argue otherwise.

pushing back against kafka

Animation for The Aftershocks was created by @RebeccaMock

For more on the L’Aquila quake, trial, and appeal, see this superb (and bilingual!) blog by Alessandro Amato and colleagues at INGV.

Also check out Warner Marzocchi's letter from 2012 in Physics World, and Boschi's letter in Science from last year.

And keep watching here--and at Matter--for more discussion and extras.

l'aquila's torment

The dormitory, victims, and an apartment building in the city center.

More from the cutting-room floor of "The Aftershocks," just published by Matter.

When I met with Parisse, he mentioned an exchange he had with one of the seven defendants. (He requested that I not say who.) It was the day Parisse gave testimony, and the man wanted to express his sympathies and compliment Parisse for composure on the stand. They hugged. Parisse replied that he doesn’t feel hatred toward any of the scientists. “I know you did not come here from Rome to kill my children. But you are responsible.”

Sunday, August 24, 2014

the aftershocks

Time stopped for many people that night.

My story about the tragedy of L'Aquila is finally up. This was one of the most difficult, complicated, and important stories of my career. I hope you read it. To the end.

I also want to share some material from the cutting-room floor. This first snippet comes from one of those reflection-inducing experiences that can be ideal for processing a reporting binge. It didn't serve the narrative well enough to warrant inclusion in the published story. For understanding the man at the center of the saga, however, I think it's illuminating.

“I grew up surrounded by the law,” Selvaggi told me. His grandfather was a famous prosecutor who fought the mafia in Sicily, and both his father and brother are attorneys. “I trust in justice,” he said. But he sounded more forlorn than convinced.

We were out to dinner at Castel Gandolfo. The picturesque medieval village southeast of Rome is home to the Pope’s summer residence. Selvaggi had put considerable thought into our dinner spot. He wanted me to see Lake Albano, which sits directly below the village, down a steep hillside. Formed by a nearby volcano, the crater lake makes for a good backdrop to a conversation about the clamorous geology of Italy. He also wanted me to think about old things—villages, streets, buildings, customs. The restaurant we chose was in a stone, centuries-old space, almost like a dungeon, connected via a tunnel to a building across the way. If an earthquake struck, we would have been in serious trouble.

And he wanted me to think about faith. At one point during our interview, he mentioned a YouTube clip he had recently seen, of a sermon delivered by a prominent catholic cardinal. Selvaggi liked the gist of the address, which went something like this: There is a single naked truth, but we each dress it up differently. The cardinal may or may not have been talking about God—Selvaggi, who is not a religious man, didn’t see it that way. What resonated for him was the idea of a single truth that remains locked in the prism of individual interpretation. The essential truth of what happened in L’Aquila, he says, feels similarly out of reach. That may be at least in part because, despite commonalities in how we think about and perceive risk, the decision of how to live with it is uniquely our own.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

bitcoin's essential--and possibly insurmountable--obstacle

A startup whiz told me something yesterday that I can't get out of my head. He thinks Bitcoin won't go mainstream because most people aren't tech savvy. They can use their phones, sure, but to trust Bitcoin you have to know a little about how it works. That's hard for most people. Without that trust, of course, you don't get widespread use, which--last time I checked--is a must for a viable currency. 

He may be right. But I'd add that for Bitcoin to go big, people also need to learn how monetary systems work. That is similarly difficult, not to mention the fact that it sounds so damn boring. What do you think, Honey: Should I dig in to a great detective novel tonight or read about monetary systems?

Unquestioning acceptance of the USD (or national currencies generally) as the only game in town has meant that people engage in the monetary regime without necessarily having to understand how it works. They aren't going to hop over to some other regime without a high level of confidence in that new system. This is hard earned money we're talking about, after all. Then again, there is the case of the euro. Still wrapped up in government(s) in all the ways Bitcoin isn't, yet perhaps there are useful parallels as far as how to convince everyday people that this newfangled thing has value.

Anyway, it was an unexpected perspective coming from a tech guy, and it has been nagging at me ever since. What do you think?