Inviting Disaster - James R. Chiles

This is more like it. Rather than try to analyse failure modes in the abstract, it discusses a number of major technological disasters and what happened. We're talking oil rigs and nuclear power plants. In depth analyses of situations involving (supposedly) highly-trained professionals. You can read through the cases and think that perhaps you'd behave in the same way, causing the disaster. There's also dicussion of systems with highly dangerous failure modes where they've learnt to manage the risk - explosives factories, for example. The emphasis is on how the systems fail, and what can be done to prevent such failures. Generally, this is to have systems which fail gracefully, designed with transparency in mind, and handled by trained experts who understand the cost of screw-ups.

While the book may not seem too useful for those not designing mission-critical systems where lives depend upon you, it's still pretty useful for giving you an idea of why complex systems may fail, and so how best to avoid them in your own little projects. The case studies are far more instructive than the pschology experiments of Dietrich Doerner, and hey, they're much more readable. Big explosions!

Posted 2007-08-02.