Inviting Disaster

James Chiles’ “Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology” is a fun read, except that it’s a spoiler for the books that tells the story of just one of these disasters.  The best part of the book, and the part you never get in books like this and certainly not in the books about a single debacle, is a section where he tells a few stories about people doing the right things to avoid the horrible outcome.

I particularly liked learning that Nobel had so much trouble getting with workers smuggling matches into the factory that finally he started making them strip naked each morning and walk thru a pool up to their neck.

It disappoints in some ways: there are no financial disasters and no software disasters.  There are no examples of failures of collective action or public good management, i.e. levee failures.  Or for that matter catastrophes caused by a the false sense of security that comes from gradual processes.

Since it’s mostly stories it is not a very useful book if you want to learn what makes dangerous systems and what to do about it.  Normal Accidents remains a good starting point for that.  But stories are fun, and very useful.  Everybody ought to read a few of the books on this shelf in the Library.

Oh, and don’t try to extinguish a fire by flooding the cargo hold with steam when it’s loaded with fertilizer.

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