Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Summer reading: Quick book reviews

The Martian: Fun read, and reflects an amazing amount of research and thought by the author. The family enjoyed it even more than I did. Many novels have featured marooned individuals, on Mars and elsewhere, but this has a uniquely fast pace as things continue to wrong and then even wronger. I think one reason it's so currently popular is that the plot affirms hopes among the Colonize Mars crowd:  if we could just hurl a few plucky humans to the surface, along with a few hundred tons of supplies, they'd take it from there and make us all proud. 

The Martian is based on an appealing fantasy, but it's not a good basis for a manned space program. In my conversations with astronauts about human vs. robot roles in space, they convinced me that when it comes to distant places like Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, they'd prefer that robots do the advance work, dig shelters against cosmic rays, and turn up hazards long before the humans touch down. Quite likely, the first astronauts to arrive in the vicinity wouldn't land at all. Rather they'd handle the robots' mission control from orbit. But that's too wonky for fiction. 

Lawrence in Arabia: Many good insights about T.E. Lawrence, the scheming British and French, the Turks, residents of Palestine, and the Saudi tribes. We hear much about what drove T.E. to such heights and such depths. But I found the side stories of other intriguers so prominently mentioned on the jacket -- presented in a parallel thriller style -- as weakly tied to the main story, because those people had little to do with Lawrence's exploits. Are they there for contrast, to show how much Lawrence did and how much they didn't do? I couldn't tell, but it was distracting. I did appreciate the occasional revisionist info correcting fictions in the David Lean motion picture

Time and Again: A classic. A wonderful book, worth reading numerous times. Jack Finney is one of the few time-travel writers to realize that great narration and characters are more important than dropping time-travelers into the Turning Points of History. One of many examples of the latter cliche is The Final Countdown, where the writers dispatch a modern aircraft carrier through a "time storm," conveniently to arrive off Hawaii hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Here's the poster:

The Theory That Wouldn't Die: Reading this now: nonfiction about the origin of the Bayes Theorem and why it took more than two centuries to catch hold. Why does an old theory about using prior scenarios and posterior corrections matter? It's proven vital to good decision-making in uncertain and fuzzy situations. If the wreck of Malaysia Airlines MH370 is ever found -- no, make that when it's found -- the use of Bayesian methods is likely to share some of the credit ... as it did with the location of the remains of Air France Flight 447. 

Tianjin blasts: How big, and how did they happen?

Monitoring news of the explosions in the giant port of Tianjin, China. 

We are told that a fire in containerized cargo brought dozens of firefighters to the scene and later led to two explosions, the first about two or three metric tons of TNT-equivalent and the second less than 23 metric tons ... according to the official seismic data.

I looked up the site for the China Earthquakes Networks Centerbut all the information I see posted there is dated and limited to earthquakes. 

From the images, and the continually rising death toll in the headlines, I'd be surprised if the total yield was much below 100 tons of TNT equivalent. Damage visible in the daytime (Photo, Beijing Youth Daily):

The ripple effect on the world's supply chain could last longer than hospitalizations, as Tianjin is one of the top export-import hubs for China. From NBCNews, this stack of toppled empty containers:

To the extent other stored goods in the area have been tainted by the alleged chemical releases, there may be a lot of dumping to come.

Not knowing the kind of explosive materials stored there, it's hard to speculate on the chain of events. Some titanic explosions of stored ammonium-nitrate fertilizer have been triggered by fires (for more info, see Inviting Disaster, Chapter 9, but so far we don't know what energetics were being stored here.