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A Narrative Failure
on June 3, 2012
Laborious. Tedious. Melodramatic in spots. Dis-ordered. Much irrelevant wandering. Certainly I was disappointed with this book. I bought it on account of a positive review in the Wall Street Journal. This is the 2nd WSJ review that has led me astray - I can't recommend those either.
Perhaps 150 of the 360 content pages would have been eliminated by a competent editor. An entire chapter is devoted to mostly idle chatter about the author's graduate studies and experiences in a lab "known affectionately by the acronym TAM", a vignette of his dissertation advisor, and recountings of coffee klatches. I am an engineer by training, trade, and practice of more than 20 years, with plenty of time spent in labs. I did not develop an attachment to any of them. Another chapter is devoted to a meandering history of "Iron Ring Ceremonies". The first page or so is interesting - I had never heard of them - but little is gained thereafter. And then throughout the text we find such gems as "Success is success, but that is all that it is." Where was the editor?
I was hoping for an organized synopsis of failures of various kinds with details of the believed causes, as well as concise discussions of the non-technical human factors that are involved in almost all of them. It's not here. The narrative is often of the jumbled stream-of-consciousness type, with the author dropping into first person and diverging into all manner of side-topics. We have tortured discussions about bridges, ad infinitum, with revelations such as "Among the most important decisions in designing a new bridge are where to locate it and what kind of bridge to build". Luckily I bought this book. In some cases (e.g. the Columbia break-up and the Hyatt Regency walkways), the important details of the failure mechanism are not even explained. There are no sketches, no drawings, no tables of comparative data, no statistical summaries, and only a few photos - several being portraits of professors and colleagues in lieu of failed components. I have read technical reports on mechanical failures that were better organized and more thorough - and much shorter.
Credit the author with adequate referencing - there are copious footnotes. And there is some good, and to me new, information to be gleaned from this book, but you will need a fairly wide sieve and a tight dust mask - the volume of chaff can be overwhelming.