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Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology Hardcover – August 21, 2001

4.3 out of 5 stars 75 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Inviting Disaster, by technology and history writer James R. Chiles, is an unusual book: it appeals to the macabre desires that keep us riveted to highway accidents, while knowledgeably discoursing on the often preventable mistakes that caused them. At its heart are colorful stories behind more than 50 of the most infamous catastrophes that periodically chilled the advance of the industrial age. There are both those well remembered (the 1986 Challenger explosion, for example) and those now largely forgotten (a 1937 gas explosion at a Texas school that killed 298). But along with lively depictions of these deadly devastations and white-knuckle calamities--the U.S. battleship Maine, Apollo 13, and Three Mile Island among them--Chiles offers an informed analysis of the unfortunate chain of events that brought them about. And by grouping like incidents to show how fatal "system fractures" eventually developed through a combination of human error and mechanical malfunction, he also suggests how we might sidestep such tragedies in the future. In so, doing he fashions these spectacular accounts of failed planes, trains, ships, bridges, dams, factories, and other conveyances and facilities into a cautionary tale about technological progress. --Howard Rothman

From Publishers Weekly

Despite the specter of the Titanic, the oil rig Ocean Ranger was called "unsinkable" until one fateful night in the North Atlantic in 1982. Failing to anticipate that the vessel could list significantly to one side, its builders left open some five-foot-long holes on top of its corner supports, which filled with water during a terrible storm and led to the deaths of all 84 crew members. Chiles treats readers to a laundry list of such disasters from Bhopal to Chernobyl that arose from mistakes, panic or hubris. The result is a parade of dramatic stories about people who are simply unable to think in critical situations: "imagine having to take the most difficult final exam of your life while somebody is lobbing tear-gas grenades at you... when you are also suffering a major migraine headache and violent food poisoning." In some cases, he suggests proactive measures (e.g., when on a plane, note the number the rows to the exit, in case there's a snafu involving blinding smoke). In a book that is much more than a litany of disaster and tips on survival, Chiles also offers fascinating, detailed analyses of "system fractures" chains of events yielding catastrophes. Despite the depressing subject matter, the book is ultimately hopeful, recounting numerous acts of foresight or bravery in the face of bureaucratic opposition that saved many lives. (Aug. 31)
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: HarperBusiness; First Edition edition (August 21, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0066620813
  • ISBN-13: 978-0066620817
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (75 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #577,998 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Robert I. Hedges HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on September 6, 2003
Format: Hardcover
'Inviting Disaster' is a compelling and easy to read book. It is an introduction to accident theory for generalists, and is as interesting (perhaps more so) to nontechnical people as it is to engineers and the like. James Chiles discusses several major accidents (Challenger, Three Mile Island, Ocean Ranger, etc.) in well executed chapters with substantial background from previous precursor accidents or incidents. One reviewer seems to believe that this is a flaw, but I disagree. The reviewer seems to believe, for instance, that the R101 (a dirigible, not a blimp, as the reviewer wrongly states) is totally irrelevant to Challenger. In fact R101 was the Challenger of it's day, and the social, managerial and technological pressures that ultimately led to the R101 disaster ultimately led to Challenger as well. Chiles ties this theme together in a seamless manner in chapter after chapter.
This book is not a rigorous technical analysis of the individual disasters with the engineering and math associated with formal inquiries and technical (AAIB, NTSB, etc.) investigations. What it does better than any of the technical inquiries could ever do, though, is make a clear a compelling case for the problems that led to each of the accidents covered, treating man-machine interface issues with particular grace.
I have long been associated with the more technical aspects of accident investigation and safety systems, but have to say that while there are more technical accounts available for all of these accidents, if you are looking for an entry level (but complete) overview of accidents and systems safety, you can't go wrong with this book.
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Format: Hardcover
James Chiles' new book is a welcome addition to the pantheon of engineering disaster chronicles. You should already have read Perrow's Normal Accidents, Vaughn's The Challenger Launch Decision, and Sagan's Limits of Safety. If you haven't, go read them now, I'll wait. Ok, next you have to read Chiles' book.
Inviting Disaster covers some of the same incidents that are featured prominently in those others, and Chiles adds new insights and observations with his trenchant observations and outstanding writing. But where he really shines is his ability to spot near-misses, close calls that the public never knew about (but which still cause nightmares for those who wish they didn't.) There are many more near-misses than calamities, and access to some of them is a major addition to our overall engineering knowledge. This book's a great read.
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Format: Paperback
Chiles gives a vivid journalistic account of various accidents and disasters. The writing style is easy and popular -he clearly intends to reach a broad audience. He generally does this job well.

The main weakness of the book is the absence of an overarching framework, or theory if you like, that could help the reader assimilate all this information, structure it, identify some concepts or themes that recur. Or at least explain to the reader why Chiles found this particular selection of accidents so interesting that they deserve mention in his book. Chiles is quite candid about this lack of purpose: "When I began this project some friends asked what anybody could boil out of the huge variety of technological disaster we've seen. I didn't know." (p277).

Therefore, the title's promise of "Lessons [learned?] from the edge of technology" never really materialises. The stories are told well, but the lessons remain fragmented and fuzzy. The book is not particularly useful in actual accident prevention work.

While generally well written, at times, particularly in the second half of the book, Chiles goes an association or two too far. More than once, I was left in a mild state of confusion. Other reviewers have also mentioned this problem.

The book gives a fragmented account of various disasters. If you prefer depth over breadth, you won't like this book. If you are interested in a popular account of various disasters, you may enjoy it.

But why not spend your time better reading truly fantastic books on the subject of learning from [bad] experience. Read Henry Petroski's To engineer is human, Aaron Wildavsky's Searching for safety, Daniel Maurino's Beyond aviation human factors, or some of the books by James Reason, Trevor Kletz or perhaps Scott Sagan. There is plenty to choose from.
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Format: Hardcover
I have read many books and articles about the problems of technology that range from gee-whiz-techno-chearleader to back-to-the stone-age Luddite. Recently, I have become so familiar with the problems of urban sprawl or nuclear waste that I simply turn to the last thin chapter for the author's solution to the problem and the solution is always vague...such as "grassroots activism" or "better regulation and oversight". It's very rare to find an author that is willing to touch practical solutions to technological problems with a ten foot pole...it's more fun to scare people about disasters past, present, and future...it sells books!
James Chiles doesn't want to just feed our goulish interest in things that blow-up and crash, he's interested in disecting each disaster for a cause or in many cases the set of sequences that lead to a catastrophic failure and prescribing steps to prevent future disasters. He presents the reader with case after case of preventable disasters and finds common threads of causative factors.
Chiles believes that we are living on an expanding "frontier" of technology. He believes that in order to survive in this always new environment we need to be ever vigilant. Chiles has assigned the name "Homo Machina" to the Human beings who will be best adapted to existence on the technology frontier.
This book would be most usefull to engineers, but it is written for a general audience that would be interested in behind-the-scenes explanations for many historical and recent headline-grabbers.
I find this book refreshing in it's candor about the course of Technology.
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