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REVIEW: "Minding the Machines", William M. Evan/Mark Manion

Rob Slade, doting grandpa of Ryan and Trevor
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"Minding the Machines", William M. Evan/Mark Manion, 2002,
0-13-065646-1, U$29.99/C$46.99
%A William M. Evan Removed)
%A Mark Manion (E-Mail Removed)
%C One Lake St., Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458
%D 2002
%G 0-13-065646-1
%I Prentice Hall
%O U$29.99/C$46.99 +1-201-236-7139 fax: +1-201-236-7131
%P 485 p.
%T "Minding the Machines: Preventing Technological Disasters"

Part one is an introduction. It is ironic, both in terms of the title
of the chapter; "Technological Disasters: an Overview"; and
particularly the title of the book, that although the authors list
four categories of disaster causes, the examples given overwhelmingly
indicate human error, if not outright malfeasance. The
classifications provided are also confusing: what difference is there
between human, organizational, and socio-cultural factors? The
comparison of natural and man-made disasters, and the supporting
tables, in chapter two raise more questions than they answer: why are
both types increasing at almost identical rates (in glaring contrast
to the stated conclusion)?

Part two looks at the prevalence of technological disasters. (I
thought we just did that?) Chapter three says nothing new about Y2K.
The theories of technological disasters, in chapter four, are flawed
by an overly simplistic view of systems, one which completely ignores
the inherent tendency of complex systems in general, and digital
systems in particular, to catastrophic failure modes. As noted, the
book is heavily larded with tables and figures, most of which have
little apparent relevance to the text, and some of which actually seem
to contradict the written material. One example in this chapter
points out that the figures are, themselves, unexplained and poorly
captioned: a diagram with six numbered interrelationships is followed
by a numbered list--for a completely different set of factors. In
chapter five the authors set up an odd, and poorly explained, matrix
of "systemic dimensions" underlying disasters. "Human Factors
Factors" (sic) are technological (as opposed to social) systems and
external (as opposed to internal) systemic factors. The reporting of
details in the examples in this and other chapters is suspect: despite
specific and itemized accounts of the Therac 25 tragedy in at least
two of the references listed for this chapter, the authors insist that
somehow the type of radiation was at fault, rather than the flawed
user interface that allowed incorrect dosage settings to be retained
by the device, even after the operator believed the error had been

Part three supposedly looks at technological disasters since the
industrial revolution. Chapter six meanders through a wide variety of
industrial "revolutions," and then delves briefly into future biotech,
nanotech, and robotics/artificial intelligence. A terse and bemusing
expansion of the earlier four part matrix into twelve goes on in
chapter seven.

Part four provides an "Analysis of Case Studies of Technological
Disasters." Chapter eight insists on fitting a number of tragedies
into the matrix from chapter seven. The reasons for the choices are
not obvious: the authors insist throughout the book that the Bhopal
poison gas release was due to "socio-cultural factors" when it is
clearly, as far as the book recounts, due to greed and a lack of
provision for safety equipment and procedures. (Another table
maintains that Bhopal was an "accident" while the sinking of the
Titanic, with far less impact in deaths and injuries, was a disaster
and a tragedy.) Chapter nine lists one "lesson learned" from each of
the "case studies": actually, what all of them have in common is the
fact that technological disasters have *numerous* causes, not just a
single one. The Tenerife airliner crash, as only one example, was
caused by overloading of a backup situation, fear of regulations that
made no provision for emergencies, miscommunications, failure to
verify communications, pressure of overloading of facilities, and
other failures.

Part five talks about strategic responses. Chapter ten states that
scientists need to stress professional education and safety. Now, I
can sympathize with that attitude in large measure: as a virus
researcher I've been crying in the wilderness about malware for many
years, and have recently been exhorting corporations to support free
public security awareness training as a benefit to the enterprise by
reducing overall levels of risk. I think it a bit unfair, though, to
put all the weight for safety on the shoulders of the professionals,
when the rest of society is completely obsessed with time-to-market
and dancing pigs. Chapter eleven tacitly admits this fact, with case
studies that demonstrate that in many instances of corporate
wrongdoing the executives were warned of the dangers in advance. No
recommendations for specific responses are made. The four legal
branches of the United States government, and their relationships to
technology, are listed in chapter twelve: again, no suggestions are
forthcoming. A fairly standard overview of risk analysis is given in
chapter thirteen, which, I suppose, might be some kind of endorsement
of and recommendation for risk analysis itself. Chapter fourteen
assumes that "democratic" decision making is better than "technical,"
without ever examining the dangers of social and political influences
forcing the bad public policy rulings that the case studies in the
work truly demonstrate.

This book actually says very little about either technology or
technological disasters: most of the evidence points out fraud,
avarice, and other social factors that create most any kind of
disasters. For those who really do want to know how to make
technology safer, it would be best to look elsewhere.

copyright Robert M. Slade, 2004 BKMNDMCH.RVW 20040527

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