Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Trapped Under the Sea by Neil Swidey *****

The smartest guy in the room will kill you. Trapped Under the Sea by Neil Swidey is a cautionary tale of how engineers can cause disasters and death.

In this chronicle of misplaced faith in technology and technologists, Swidey details the circumstances leading the to inevitable death of two divers under Boston Harbor and the subsequent impact on the survivors. The "trapped under the sea" part is just a small interlude between the causes and effects.

The project is a ten mile long tunnel to delivery treated sewage out into the harbor. The myriad players -- Federal judge, contractors, OSHA, MWRA (Mass Water Resources Authority) -- are deadlocked. Swidey does an excellent job delving into the individual players, their personal and organizational motivations. These characters drive the story and make this book an exciting page turner, even though everyone knows the result is going to be a disaster, where the divers pay the ultimate price for the difficulties and inadequacies of their superiors.

Into this impasse comes Harald Grob - the smartest guy in the room. Like many engineers, Harald is a mixture of optimism,  innovation, and arrogance with a minimum of social skills. When the bristly technologist comes up with a solution to everyone's problem, no one questions him. Several try, mostly divers with their lives at stake, but no one succeeds. He defends his position are omniscient, genius savior (many engineers live for the role) through condescending sarcasm and half truths.

This is the cautionary tale that is hit home when the deaths force questions to be answered and time discloses the breadth of damage caused by the risks taken. Ironically, after the deaths, the impasse is solved with a different engineering solution that is easier, cheaper, and safer.

The first half of the story is dominated by the string of technical and political miscalculations leading the the disaster. The second half deals with the aftermath. Especially touching is the PTSD of the surviving divers. Sadly, the innocent divers who barely escaped, had their lives ruined, while the organizations and managers who shirked their responsibilities, recovered and prospered. A cautionary tale for all, but especially for the people on the front line who are potential victims of people taking risks with their lives.

Swidey is a journalist. This is an exciting story told through the lives the people involved and impacted by these events. Research and reporting at its best, and an excellent read.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on January 15, 2014. I received the book on February 1, 2014.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Biology of Luck by Jacob M Appel ***

A one-sided love story in NYC. The Biology of Luck by Jacob M Appel is one of those book that forces you to consider the structure, even before the characters and the plot. The enclosed discussion guide admits as much with
How important do you think the book-within-a-book structure is to the overall book, and to your enjoyment or frustration as a reader? Can you think of structural comparisons from film, music, or art?
 At the beginning the structure is interesting, with chapters alternating between Larry Bloom's day as a NYC tour guide and chapters from Bloom's book about Starshine, the target of his love fantasies. At the start, this just creepy as he write about other boyfriends and sex life, but eventually it just casts a fog of sad fantasy over Larry Bloom and makes it hard to care about him.

But do not despair, Appel (telling Larry's story) and Bloom (telling Starshine's story) deliver an interlocking ensemble cast of NYC characters from Starshine's super Bone whose response to complaints about sex  noise from her apartment is to remove her noisy springs and install a waterbed to Larry's mentor whose life is dedicated to writing the perfect sentence. Ultimately this group of strange characters lost in the city keeps the story moving and interesting.

However, all good things ... lead to the final discussion guide question [SPOILER]
Does that open-ended mode work for you?
Here again we have a Lady or the Tiger story. Since Frank Stockton's 1882 story, authors with literary pretensions or lack of conviction to conclude their stories or something else, have felt justified to end storyies without a resolutions. This is another one and I hate them all. If I wanted ambiguity, I'd live life, not read novels.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on January 2, 2014. I received the book January 4, 2014.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Trying Not to Try by Edward Slingerland *****

Ideal companion to the Winter Olympics in Sochi 2014. Like the Chinese philosophers over 2,000 years ago, Olympic viewers are stuck with the paradox of spontaneous versus meditated behavior. Do we root for the natural skier or the one who approaches the moguls like a physicist.

Trying Not to Try by Edward Slingerland combines the ancient Chinese  philosophy with contemporary neuroscience to address the paradox of the timeless debate of trying versus not trying, thinking versus not thinking, learning versus not learning, natural versus artifice. After thousands of years of investigation and debate, and modern neuroscience research, the paradox survives, and every event in your life and at Sochi only serves to reinforce the paradox.

Neuroscience confirms two brain systems: cold cognition, conscious, logical and hot cognition, subconscious, emotional. When cold cognition is in charge, we are sabotaged by appearing fake and insincere, with slow reaction times and uninspired responses. These are the figure skaters that seem like robots. On the other hand the hot system is uncontrollable and unpredictable. Trying to get it to perform on demand is assured to fail, like the figure skater who has performed a routine flawlessly over and over and over in practice, only to fall on the first jump in competition.

Slingerland contributes to this paradox covering the philosophic and scientific background and providing a interesting evolutionary explanation. As social beings, it is critical for homo sapiens to be able to detect cheaters. We are attuned to virtuous people and we identify them by the behavior of there hot responses ... the figure skaters who are enjoying their performances. This 'signal' is very hard to fake because of the paradox. If the figure skaters tries to appear natural, they will most likely fail, but if they don't train, they will lack the skill to deliver a natural performance of any value. Thus, when we see a spontaneous performance, we have reason to believe it is genuine.

In the end, this book provides a perspective on the Olympics, and all human activity: professional, social and solitary.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on December 15, 2013. I received this book on January 3, 2014.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Not in a Thousand Years by Geoff Fernald ****

OUT OF PRINT An engineer's history of the 20th century.  Not in a Thousand Years by Geoff Fernald presents the 20th century as the culmination of civilization and the turning point to a better world. The scope is all encompassing, including the obvious breakthroughs in communication (radio), biology (DNA), and computing (integrated circuits), but also more engineering successes (life-cycle management, CAD) and social changes such as feminism, oral contraception, and even slap stick comedy, rock and roll, and Polaroid cameras.

This summary of the century alone makes this book a worthwhile read and reference.

I also found it to be an interesting insight into the engineering mind: optimistic, logical and  linear.

A nice example here is the repeal of prohibition: "Prohibition should serve as a signpost to help us avoid future embarrassment with legislated morality." Unfortunately, 10 years after the publication of 1000 years, human nature wins out over "future embarrassment," and "legislated morality," and legislated morality and legal prohibitions have returned globally.

As a victim of linear thought, 1000 years just misses the impact of CAD on architecture as demonstrated by Frank Gehry's dramatic structures in Bilbao, Seattle, and Los Angeles. While CAD and architecture are both highlighted, CAD's breakthrough that let architecture abandon regular geometries comes in at the end of the 20th century and is thus missed.

Another linear thought that I'm am confident will be proven false this century is: "[Progress through education] will not likely occur in continental Africa during the 21st century."

Taken a broad summary of the 20th century, this is a great read and reference.

I worked with the author many years ago (late 1980s).