Saturday, September 19, 2009

Normal Accidents

Normal accidents: living with high-risk technologies By Charles Perrow
(Book Commentary)

Some books are undeservedly forgotten, but none are undeservedly remembered”- Anon.

This was the Quote in the book marker when I ordered my first book @ (circa 1998). I happen to get hold of a book called “Normal Accidents” by Charles Perrow written way back in 1984.
If that quote had an author, perhaps I would have contested - certainly it is a undeservedly forgotten book. I was impressed by the oxymoronic title it carried and I liked it.
Science or popular writings did not get very famous those days (some exceptions like Made in Japan, Pepsi to Apple, Tao of Physics etc). The author did write an afterword for his latest edition that includes Y2k – but then, I would rate that as a meek rejoinder.

Basic theme of the book is that, as we move on, accidents are common part of life – yet, he quips that, disasters and catastrophic events are really hard to arrange. So many things have to come in unison to make such things happen. While that observation gives a whiff of relief, as you go on, an eerie feeling comes to you that, the unison events can be totally unrelated and too insignificant on a standalone basis, but can haunt us for generations to come.

Any first rate book first explains the framework no matter how abstract it is and then introduces key concepts and definitions, then moves on to the main theme.
Just to get off a rapid start on the run way, author chose the Three mile Island nuclear disaster first and then gets in to definitions in Chap2. It deals with complexity, coupling and catastrophe, system and component failures, complex and linear systems, tight and loose coupling. All are well explained with examples.

Author’s coverage areas are indeed wide. He deals with Nuclear, Petrochemicals, Aircrafts<>Airways, Marine, Earth bound systems (Dams, Quakes, Mines and lakes), Exotics (Space, weapons and DNA).
His Nuclear, Marine and Airways are really good. If we remember that it was written in 1984, you may not worry too much on DNA part for many things have transpired since then.
Earthbound, he tells very interesting anecdotes. Certainly, it broadens the sense of perspective and also lends a transient solace that, things are just about as the “same” elsewhere as in Software : )
I am refraining quoting any specific ones in that book for many of the narratives are worth reading.

Finally author classifies all in 3 categories.
1. Abandon them => because is beyond our capabilities
2. Redesign them => regardless of the short term costs
3. Regulate them => regardless of the imperfections in the regulations

It is difficult to be optimistic after reading this book –since our collective understanding of such complex things are on a very flimsy footing. But, the major take away is that, it would breed a sense of humility. It comes from the obvious realization that our understanding is really dwarfed by ignorance.

Thanks for reading so far,


Ramesh N Raghavan said...

Hi Madhu,
Nice review. Looking forward to read it sometime.
Keep posting!!
Best Regards,
N.R. Ramesh.

பகலவன் கிருஷ்ணமூர்த்தி said...


Review is interesting to read.
"disasters and catastrophic events are really hard to arrange. So many things have to come in unison to make such things happen.." sounds close to chaos theory :-))


Madhu Parthasarathy said...

May be Pagz. But "Chaos" is a state and "disaster" is an event.

பகலவன் கிருஷ்ணமூர்த்தி said...

நல்லா சொன்னீங்க.! தெளிவுபடுத்தியமைக்கு நன்றி.

Madhu Parthasarathy said...

I stand corrected. Google search tells me the author of that quote is "W.H.Auden".
Mea culpa