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Customer Review

28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Of Lasting Value, Relevant to Today's Technical Maze, January 27, 2003
This review is from: Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies (Paperback)
Edit of 2 April 2007 to add link and better summary.

I read this book when it was assigned in the 1980's as a mainstream text for graduate courses in public policy and public administration, and I still use it. It is relevant, for example, to the matter of whether we should try to use nuclear bombs on Iraq--most Americans do not realize that there has never (ever) been an operational test of a US nuclear missile from a working missle silo. Everything has been tested by the vendors or by operational test authorities that have a proven track record of falsifying test results or making the tests so unrealistic as to be meaningless.

Edit: my long-standing summary of the author's key point: Simple systems have single points of failure that are easy to diagnose and fix. Complex systems have multiple points of failure that interact in unpredictable and often undetectable ways, and are very difficult to diagnose and fix. We live in a constellation of complex systems (and do not practice the precationary principle!).

This book is also relevant to the world of software. As the Y2K panic suggested, the "maze" of software upon which vital national life support systems depend--including financial, power, communications, and transportation software--has become very obscure as well as vulnerable. Had those creating these softwares been more conscious of the warnings and suggestions that the author provides in this book, America as well as other nations would be much less vulnerable to terrorism and other "acts of man" for which our insurance industry has not planned.

I agree with another review who notes that this book is long overdue for a reprint--it should be updated. I recommended it "as is," but believe an updated version would be 20% more valuable.

Edit: this book is still valuable, but the author has given us the following in 2007:
The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 14, 2008 1:49:54 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 14, 2008 1:54:00 PM PDT
Minding the Machines: Preventing Technological Disaster, by William M. Evan and Mark Manion appears promising on this topic, based on both expert and fellow amazon denizen reviews. Minding the Machines: Preventing Technological Disasters
I have not read this book myself. I read a lot, as much as I can anyway (60 books a year lately, mostly on current affairs), but nowhere near as much as you do. I figure you'll get to it before I will.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 14, 2008 3:38:41 PM PDT
Very cool recommendation, going to it now, thank you. Ethics is a huge part of life, E. O. Wilson's Consilience answers the question "why are the humanities important to the sciences?" I am getting interested in the convergence of ethics, paranormal, collective intelligence, and what Lionel Tiger calls "the manufacture of evil" where industry breaks the kinship bonds of trust and humans become commodities.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 16, 2008 6:57:49 PM PDT
You are most welcome. I was a philosophy major in college, 26 years ago, with a principle focus on ethics. From that background the transition to passionate interest in public affairs and public policy seemed the natural "application". I have Consilience but haven't gotten to it yet. It is not particularly close to what I call my "on deck" circle at the moment, though maybe your reference to it will bump it up a bit. My wife says of my obsessive reading tendencies that I am a "professional reader." I'm in McLean, VA, BTW, not far from where you live. I've read many of your reviews over the years and find them most helpful so if in this case I am able to return the favor with a tip I am glad to do so.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 17, 2008 4:09:58 AM PDT
Retired Reader and I have been talking about a monthly Reader's Circle, and I am in dialog with a local university about teaching a Certificate Course in Public Intelligence. Stay in touch. Consider subscribing to the free weekly report, GLOBAL CHALLENGES: The Week in Review, at

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 17, 2008 6:46:23 AM PDT
Thanks. I will go ahead and subscribe to Global Challenges.

I am interested in the topic of Public Intelligence; I feel I have snippets of the basic ideas from your reviews in particular but would like to know more. If you are compiling a list of NOVA residents you think might wish to take the course please consider contacting me through my amazon account. If it is not technically possible for you to reach me that way please let me know and we'll figure something else out. I am time-challenged with two elementary school children but depending on what time, how many times a week, and where (Mason?) the course gets offered I might be able to negotiate something with my wife so I can attend.

I haven't participated in a Reader's Circle before and so am unfamiliar with what they are. Is that where participants "go around the room" and give cursory summaries, along with recs as appropriate, of what they've been reading of late? That sounds interesting as well.


Posted on Aug 18, 2009 10:41:32 AM PDT
Prof. Perrow's Normal Accidents is informative and persuasive, and it's gratifying to see that it's been updated and at least partially revised. The original, 1984 edition, which is the one I read, was replete with evidence that Perrow's editor was asleep at the switch. LNG, for example, was repeatedly and mistakenly said to stand for Liquefied Nitrogen Gas, which would virtually eliminate it from the category of materials with catastrophic accident potential. LNG, of course, stands for Liquefied Natural Gas, a potentially much more dangerous substance than inert nitrogen. This error has apparently been corrected in the 1999 re-issue, at least in the List of Acronyms. But Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter is still misidentified as Scott Crossfield (he piloted the X-15 rocket plane) and other niggling errors may persist. Normal Accidents is recommended reading, but read it with caution.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 18, 2009 5:48:42 PM PDT
Helpful. I wish publishers paid attention to comments--they don't even do a good job of using Amazon's various options for uploading information about the book. I also tried to get AMAZON to create a Wiki where we could self-select trusted colleagues and do "group" reviews as well as division of labor coverage. The pedestian mentalities are still blocking us all, I fear. Glad to be brought back to this. His Catastrophes as well as book by someone else, Acts of God, make it clear we are our own worst enemies.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 19, 2009 10:50:24 AM PDT
My impressions of publishers' responses to reader comments are like your own. Authors, on the other hand, seem to be a different story. Now that many of them include their e-mail addresses with their biographical sketches or on the flyleaves of their books, it's often easier (and vastly more gratifying) to communicate directly with them. My offer to provide editorial comments on Rufus Phillips' Why Vietnam Matters to the Naval Institute Press went unacknowledged. My comments to the authors of Gusher of Lies,The Unthinkable and Scottish Military Disasters led to prompt replies, courteous (even flattering) thanks and pleasant follow-on conversations.

If Charles Perrow's subject(s) are of interest to you, Mr. Steele, allow me to recommend Flirting with Disaster: Why Accidents Are Rarely Accidental by Marc Gerstein and Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology by James Chiles. Either is likely to slake your appetite for the disastrous; the two together certainly will. But both will underscore the wisdom of Pogo's wry observation.
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