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An inside look at the psychology of human / machine interaction at the worst possible moments.
on January 3, 2010
Chiles presents an inside view in chilling detail on technological disasters and the chain of events immediately preceding them. Even more compelling is not the technical details presented of said disasters, instead the fascinating study of the psychological phenomena as the human mind comes up against an uncompromising set of events that lead to technological catastrophes. As humans we are definitely at the mercy of misinformation, especially when we live in world where we are regularly put in charge of systems that we have no intimate knowledge of.
Chiles presents conclusive and detailed evidence on how our natural tendency to over-estimate our abilities (the Dunning Kruger Effect - Page 131) causes many of us to fail, including groups of us acting in unison. The most interesting stories in this book are not the ones that offer in depth analysis on the actual catastrophes, but instead, the untold stories of those of us who refused to yield to uncertainty and mediocrity, such as the highly touted US Navy Commander Hyman G. Rickover, who fortunately for us was in charge of the US Navy Nuclear Powered Submarine Programs. There are other examples, such as captain Bryce McCormick who foresaw the obvious possibility of complete failure in the DC-10 design in 1970, only to experience it first hand in 1972. His heroic actions are unparalleled today, and there is no doubt McCormick as well as our modern day aviation hero "Cap'n Sully" are in a group of a few elite individuals singled out in history, that through sheer intuition, logic, and self-discipline were able to overcome seemingly impossible situations. They all seemed to have had a deep and clear mental understanding of not only the machine itself but were also able to receive accurate information on the actual operating state of the machine in which they were in control during the crises, allowing them to formulate a plan ("satisficing") that saved countless lives.
Other highly interesting topics discussed in the book: the phenomenon of "Vu Jade" (Page 56), "Satisficing" (page 61), "Normalization of Deviance" (page 67), and finally "Workplace Heuristics" (page 135).
The topics presented especially on Heuristics come frighteningly close to the research of Bruce Schneier on terrorism and "Security Theatre".
"Watching out for signs of known problems is good, but as systems get bigger and more complex we have to remember that our Achilles has many heels, so to speak. Some of the problems that arise will never have come up before, so the simple hindsight of heuristics can't save us." -- James R. Chiles