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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on April 11, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I read A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea in two days - I hope that neither author minds the comparison, but it reads a lot like a Michael Lewis book. The book skillfully explains a complex issue told through the eyes of the quirky characters who had a front row seat to the disaster, which includes Mr. Achenbach himself. If you are a fan of the Achenblog or of his stories in the Washington Post, you won't be surprised to find yourself laughing out loud at times - which may seem inappropriate given the subject matter, but that is the charm of one of my favorite writers...
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on April 20, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
As other reviewers have said, this is as close to a page-turner as a non-fiction book can get, and gives a blow-by-blow and day-by-day account of what happened and why out in the Gulf of Mexico. And there could hardly be a better writer for the job than Achenbach, a self-professed science geek, but also a highly skilled "explainer" who can translate Engineer into English, as a colleague of his says. (Achenbach's writing and story-telling skills are amply demonstrated in his earlier works, "Captured by Aliens," a laugh-out-loud account of his travels among the people on the fringes of the UFO movement, and his serious-but-entertaining "The Grand Idea," the account of George Washington's plans to establish a canal system linking the Potomac River to the frontier America he'd explored and surveyed in his youth. As a science guy, Achenbach can hardly be topped, as his many years as a Washington Post reporter, National Geographic contributor, NPR guest, astronomy dude, and author of the mostly sciencey and often very droll "Why Things Are" series will attest. ("Captured/Aliens" should probably be a must-read for psychologists and behavioral science types, too, for its insights into the mindset of people who march to the sound of drums that are more than just a little different.)

People would dearly love for the Macondo blowout, the explosion aboard and the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon, and the months-long effort to find a way to shut down the Well From Hell to have relatively simple explanations and a handful of clear-cut villains (how many of us were denied the pleasure of blaming it all on Dick Cheney, ex-CEO of Halliburton?) BP greed? Sloppy work and cutting corners? Hubris? Crass stupidity? Government bumbling? Alas, no. Achenbach nicely dissects what turns out to be the complex cascade of events, as we have come to expect after Space Shuttle accidents and other manmade and natural disasters. Achenbach takes the reader step by step from the bridge of the Deepwater Horizon to the tightly guarded BP boilerroom where the best minds in industry and government struggled to figure out what went wrong and what to do about it (because figuring out what caused the blowout might have been key to its solution). Like the Apollo 13 mission, there was no textbook, and no one had ever dealt with a disaster of this scale and this type, under these conditions. Like Apollo 13, the first thing engineers had to do was figure out just what the hell happened, and what its effects and consequences were.

And along the way we learn all sorts of tidbits about all sorts of things (did you know that there was a deep underwater abyss off the mouth of the Mississippi River, and in it a colony of sperm whales dive deep to feed upon their prey, an almost unknown species of giant squid called magnapinna, which have elbows in their tentacles so they look like Daddy Longlegs? No? Me either.)

A great read, and so clearly explained it is accessible even to the average high-schooler. (Which means it'd make a great present for a class book review.)
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on April 12, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I guess that is the modern equilivant of a page burner on Kindle! This was a great read and my kindle could hardly keep up with my reading... It described a very complex and protracted series of events in a way that was both entertaining and enlightening. I hope the author has already started reporting on the Japanese nuclear reactors.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on April 21, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This book deserves a lot more attention. Achenbach obtained 19,000 White House emails that tell the real story of BP, Obama, and the gov't scientist hit squad sent in to ride herd on BP. Achenbach paints a squirming octopus of a disaster, puts us in the middle. Powerful, hilarious, rolls off the page.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 22, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I couldn't put this book down! It reads like a revelation, peppered with researched detail and clever metaphors. As each day of the crisis unfolds, Achenbach makes the reader privy to the science, politics, chaos and confusion that surrounded this unprecedented event. The Macondo itself becomes a looming character in the lives of the BP executives, the government officials and the engineering experts who are charged with trying to kill the horrid oil gush and PR debacle. Although never taking the environmental and personal traumas lightly, particularly when describing the panic on the part of the locals who shoulder the economic impact, Achenbach's unique word choices and images keep the reader focused. "Geology meets epistemology---always a recipe for sleepless nights" he writes. His Epilogue is prophetic when he predicts that there will be more disasters that our current technological knowledge is not prepared to handle.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Joel is a close friend and I will share he is as interesting in conversation as he is in written word. So there was no need for me to spend the weekend reading A Hole At the Bottom of the Sea when I could just as easily drink a beer with Joel on the back porch. But read it I did and I am so glad that I did. What Joel has written is the definitive case study on crisis management -- how to, how not to, and what the right moves and mis-steps will mean to the Gulf, the oil industry, and the Obama Administration. As always, Joel has deciphered the meaning of it all in a narrative that is as engaging as it is enlightening. A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea is required reading for any industry exec or government official responsible for managing risk.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on May 5, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I completely agree with the other reviews that emphasize what a page-turner this is. Going into it I didn't think oil rig engineering could be too interesting--but in Achenbach's hands it's fascinating. And that's because he so skillfully intertwines the human, scientific, technological, and political strands--and, wonderfully, the philosophical as well. Achenbach deserved a Pulitzer for his daily reporting of the spill; but in this book he surpasses even that coverage. We live in a dangerous world, and we have less control of it than we comfortably assume. Be prepared for a real roller-coaster ride.

And page 72, alone, is worth the price of the book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 23, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Since I've been a fan of Joel Achenbach for some time now, I was primed to like this book - just not as much as I did. This book far exceeded my high expectations.

What makes this book so impressive is that it combines several disparate narratives into a coherent and engaging whole. There is the technical story of obscure machinery and applied hydrodynamic theory explained so clearly that class credit should be awarded. There is the political story of the complex and ambiguous relationship between government and private industry when the former has the authority while the latter has the expertise. There is the human story of lives lost and anonymous specialists working under incomprehensible stress and with a shocking paucity of hard facts. There is the societal story of how a nation reacts to months of unrelenting crisis. There is the ecological story of massive oil pollution coupled with powerful chemicals. There is the economic story of jobs lost and markets shaken. And, finally, there is the cautionary tale of the inherent dangers when one operates powerful technologies in a poorly understood environment.

That Joel Achenbach has managed to weave these narratives together is impressive enough. That he manages to do so in a way that reads in such an engrossing manner that one occasionally forgets that this is not fiction indicates a book that is truly remarkable. Let me be clear, this book isn't just educational and important, it is extremely entertaining without ever losing track of the seriousness of its topic. Part of this is that the subject matter - what Mr. Achenbach describes as a slow-motion Apollo 13 - lends itself naturally to a thrilling tale. But the overwhelming reason for the success of this book is that Joel Achenbach is a brilliant writer. The text is full of clever wordplay and insights that make esoteric topics clear. That Mr. Achenbach creates such a complex narrative without ever falling prey to simplistic dichotomies or trite polemics adds greatly to the intellectual and emotional power of this work.

This is a great book. One that should be read, contemplated, discussed, and thoroughly cherished by all the residents of our engineered planet.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 7, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I, too, had a hard time putting this book down. Author is very skilled in telling a complicated story, full of industry jargon and ever-changing relationships between the 2 major players. I would have given 5 stars except for lack of two things: a glossary and a few simple figures. Despite the author's efforts, I could not visualize this BOP and how it connected to (or housed?) various risers, side taps, and the non-functioning disconnect mechanism. Late in the book, Joel is explaining how the unexpected and disaterous flows made their way, ultimately, up to the drilling floor. Altho attempted, the pathway was not revealed by the text, due to jargon, at least. Again, a simple diagram would do wonders. These two are simple things to create (altho not by most) and lend themselves to a job for a junior research assistant (intern, newbie, etc) with results vetted by some experts who would enjoy such a review task. I am such in several fields not related to petroleum, the hardware, the flowing things, and so forth. I welcome such review requests. Altho the author mentions the huge water amounts being sprayed onto the burning gusher and its possibly endangering the rig, he doesn't tell us who wanted to keep the water going and why. You can't put out a burning gusher with water, as Red Adair became famous for providing the alternates. All you can do is sink the rig and they did. Is that how the authorities meant to change the pollution coming from that flare into liquid pollution? Perhaps; but I'd have liked the author to enlighten us. This is a very good book; I believe it could have been a great one. I'll read more of Mr. Achenbach, now.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea reads like a great educational mystery (even though I had followed the spill closely in the news). It was intriguing to get to know the characters; peering over their shoulders on a daily basis as decisions were made, unmade and questioned during ever changing, dramatic events. I felt like I was there during the hours before the blow, watching as unsuspecting workers dealt first with confusing data and then as they scrambled in horror on a burning, tilting rig. The book allows us to witness government workers and BP personnel forced to dance a complex, never before choreographed composition together under 18,000 feet of water. I laughed and cringed and rooted for them.

My world view and complacency were altered by Achenbach's observations and insights. "The Deepwater Horizon tragedy is a reminder of how little most of know about modern technology" and "The engineered planet challenges all of us to be a little smarter, to pay more attention" because "low probability, high consequence events become more likely given enough time and opportunity". As recent events in Japan prove all too well: Everyone should read this book.
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