Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath

The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath is a solid read subtitled Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact. The book focuses on defining moments, or events we remember, with those moments typically high in elevationinsightpride, or connection

The first story told is of a school instituting a Senior Signing Day, taking the idea of national signing day for athletes revealing their school choice and applying it to all seniors, with them announcing in front of the school and their families where they'll go to college. This annual event creates defining moments for both those announcing their college picks and younger students seeing their example. The authors write about how we remember particular moments for the peak memories they've provided, with one business example given that of the Magic Castle hotel in Los Angeles. They have a Popsicle Hotline phone by the pool that hotel guests can use to request a popsicle, which will be delivered to them by a white glove-wearing waiter. The flip side of providing great customer experience is providing a great employee experience and the Heath brothers write about the First Day Experience program for new hires at John Deere. 

While a high school senior announcing where they'll go to college or employee on their first day at a job are peak moments, pits can also be the source of key memories or experiences. Something that's bad can be engineered to be better, with the example given that of hospitals making MRI machines for kids something fun, treating it like a spaceship rather than a tube to lay very still in while the machine makes loud noises. It's detailed in the book that transitions should be marked, milestones commemorated, and pits filled. 

Elevation is written of as leading to defining moments. Peaks can be created if one conscious of them and it's cited that a way to create peaks is to break the script, provide an unexpected experience, with the example given of how the son of a hotel guest left behind a stuffed animal, and hotel workers prior to mailing the animal took pictures of it enjoying it's stay there at the hotel. This story is instructive as it provided a peak moment for the hotel guest and his family, but also likely for the hotel employees providing it. Next is insight, moments that deliver realizations and transformation. One way to deliver these to help people get them for themselves, let them "trip over the truth" and come to a sudden realization. Also leading to insight is the idea of "stretching for it," going on the basis that action leads to insight more often than insight leads to action. Examples are given of people enduring hard times or moments, just putting one foot in front of the other. Another story told in the book is of students more frequently submitting paper revisions if the instructor challenged them to, wrote a note saying they're capable of doing something even better than they've already submitted. It's also noted that in work settings, mentorship can come from high standards plus assurance. 

Additionally are moments of pride, something that can be created by companies when they recognize employees for their effort and work. What's important is that it's authentic, personal, and not programmatic. Also key to remember and recognize are milestones, those marker points on the path to achieving something. Achievement is often simply stringing together milestones reached. Pride often comes from someone completing something that took a moment of courage, tackling something difficult and coming out the other side. Moments of connection are when we deepen our relationships with others. Creating shared meaning or experiences, especially working together with others on something difficult. Deepening ties is another way to create connection, listening to what someone has to say. People want to know they're understood, validated, and their needs cared about. The story is told in the book of how important it is to be able to express "what matters to me." It's a good book about this power of defining moments and how you try to provide them for people by thinking in moments and focusing on elevation, insight, pride, and connection. 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Endurance by Scott Kelly

 Endurance by Scott Kelly is from the retired astronaut who spent a year on the International Space Station, returning to Earth March 2016. It's a solid book that largely alternates chapters between this voyage on the space station, his second long-duration visit there, and the events of his life that led up to it.

Scott's twin brother Mark is also a retired astronaut (and Arizona Senate candidate) and was interesting how the two of them didn't seem to have an exceptional childhood, other than their parents drank a lot so the two kids were often on their own to entertain themselves and wander wherever they wanted. When they were with their parents, there was often fighting or other drama due to the drinking. Scott did note how when he was eleven, his mom decided to become a police officer, just like his father, and how proud he was of her for going through the process to become one, especially passing the difficult physical fitness test. 

Scott wasn't a good student when he was young, but did find something he interested in, working as an EMT while still in high school. He graduated in the bottom half of his class and while in his freshman year of college at University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus happened across The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. He was captivated by the idea of doing something immensely difficult, risking your life for it, and surviving. After reading the book, Scott had a goal to become a Navy pilot, landing on aircraft carriers, and perhaps even an astronaut. 

In his second semester of school, Scott signed up for a precalculus course, something that was going to be very difficult for him, and after putting in the work, he understood the material, with a B-. Out of this he saw that with effort, he could learn something difficult, and later noted how he saw it was just as easy to try to excel at something as to just do something halfway. He then transferred to the State University of New York Maritime College, a small, military-oriented school in New York City. He found that he liked the military discipline, something lacking while growing up. He then did well there, something that he kept building on. 

As Scott progressed through college he knew he wanted to pilot the space shuttle, with it the most difficult craft to fly and he graduated from Maritime in 1987. Having signed up for five years of military service in exchange for an ROTC scholarship, he was assigned to flight school in Pensacola, Florida, continued to thrive and was assigned to fly jets. He progressed to serving as a test pilot and was accepted into the astronaut program in 1996, at the same time as Mark. He got his first shuttle assignment in 1999, going into space on Discovery in December and later serving as commander piloting the shuttle. He notes how he a pilot, not necessarily a scientist, but understands how important the science they do is. The shuttle program ended in 2011 and Scott spent a 159 day stint on the International Space Station in 2010-11. While he on this tour, Mark's wife Gabby Giffords was shot in Tucson, Arizona and Mark three months later flew as commander of Endeavour, its last mission before being retired, with her urging him to complete the assignment. 

The ISS has been inhabited non-stop since Nov 2000, and has been visited by more than two hundred people from sixteen nations. A standard long-duration visit there was five to six months, but a year-long mission was announced in November 2012, with Scott and Russian cosmonaut Misha Kornienko as the two people sent for this stretch in large part to see how the human body would respond to a year in space, something terribly important if we're ever going to send anyone to Mars. Scott and Misha left in 2015 and it was remarkable reading of just how much work had to be done while on board, both in science experiments and ongoing repairs to things breaking on ISS. There were so many systems that had to be fixed and problems solved while they there, it's difficult stuff, this space thing. Recounted in the book are the multiple 7+ hour spacewalks Scott did to do necessary repairs to the outside of the Space Station. During their year in space, Scott and Misha saw a total of thirteen other people come and go from the space station and it was interesting reading of the interactions with crew and the views they experienced, with him noting that of the Bahamas from space. 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

His Truth is Marching On by Jon Meacham

 His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope by Jon Meacham focuses on the impact Lewis, who died earlier this year, had up through the passage of the Civil Rights Act, with Meacham citing the passage of the Act that he helped bring about as one of the key events of the 20th Century.

Lewis began his activism with sit ins trying to integrate lunch counters in Nashville and then he and fellow Freedom Riders pushed for integrated interstate travel throughout the South. It was remarkable how steadfast he and his compatriots were in their commitment to non-violence in pursuit of their just cause. Lewis was arrested forty-five times over the course of his life, suffered a fractured skull and repeatedly beaten and tear-gassed. He simply kept going, resolute in his belief that the world could be a just place, and he was willing to sacrifice himself to help make it so.

The image on the cover of the book is from the Bloody Sunday March in 1965, at the beginning of a trek from Selma to Montgomery to protest the exclusion of African Americans from the voting booths, a violation of the 15th amendment. Lewis and other non-violent marchers were attacked at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama by police and hooligans, and images from it helped press President Lyndon Johnson to pass the Civil Rights Act, guaranteeing federal protection for things like voting rights. Just as Lewis was on the right side of history, people who opposed his efforts, like law enforcement officers Jim Clark and Bull Connor were on the wrong side; Lewis went to Congress, Clark went on to sell mobile homes.

Lewis was moved by love, not by hate. His was a belief in the beloved community, a concept spoken of by Martin Luther King, Jr. and described by Lewis as the Christian concept of the Kingdom of God on earth. It was truly noble sacrifice by the great man, giving of himself for a cause, and the epilogue of the book titled Against the Rulers of the Darkness and features an afterword by Lewis about what's happing in the country today.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Obviously Awesome by April Dunford

 Obviously Awesome by April Dunford is a solid marketing book subtitled How to Nail Product Positioning So Customers Get It, Buy It, Love It.

Dunford covers how positioning is the act of deliberately defining how you are the best at something that a defined market cares a lot about. Customers need to be able to easily understand what your product is, why it's unique, and why that matters to them. She goes on to note that positioning can be thought of as context-setting. Most products are exceptional only when understood within their best frame of reference. Great positioning takes into account the customer's point of view on the problem you solve, alternative ways of solving that problem, and how you're different than them. 

Additionally, Dunford writes how the worst part of standard "who is it for, what does it provide" positioning statements is they assume the marketers know the answers. Rather, the most enthusiastic customers are the best people to say what a given product is, why it's unique, and why that matters to them. Marketers should try to find out what these fans of your product would do if your solution didn't exist, what's their alternative? Understanding what your best customers see as true alternatives to your solution will lead you to your differentiators or unique attributes. Also, the characteristics of these most enthusiastic customers are important as determining who they are means others with these same characteristics can be targeted. 

There's interesting concepts in the book and Dunford closes with steps on how to go about positioning, and then how to write it up as part of a positioning canvas:

Step one - understand what your most passionate customers say.
Step two - form a positioning team, with that team cutting across your business functions.
Step three - align your positioning vocabulary and let go of your positioning baggage.
Step four - list your true competitive alternatives. 
Step five - isolate your unique attributes or features.
Step six - map the attributes to value themes.
Step seven - determine who cares a lot, narrowly at first, you can broaden later.
Step eight - find a market frame of reference that puts your strengths at the center of it.
Step nine - layer on a trend (but be careful).
Step ten - capture your positioning so it can be shared. 

1. product name and one-line description.
2. market category and subcategory.
3. competitive alternatives - if your product didn't exist.
4. unique attributes - stuff that alternatives don't have.
5. value that those attributes enables for customers.
6. what type of customer cares a lot.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Aligned to Achieve by Tracy Elier and Andrea Austin

Aligned to Achieve by Tracy Eiler and Andrea Austin is subtitled How to Unite Your Sales and Marketing Teams into a Single Force for Growth and is from two people who have done impressive work. Eiler and Auston are founding members of the non-profit organization Women in Revenue, with its website noting focus on (A) education and awareness of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, (B) giving back to women through mentorship programs, opportunities and access to resources, and (C) moving members careers forward.

It's noted in the book that Eiler and Austin met when working together at a San Francisco-based SaaS company, with Eiler CMO and Austin Sales VP, and they they wrote of how customers don’t see sales and marketing, they see a brand and customers are getting much of their information on their own, not from a sales rep. Additionally, the purchasing process is no longer a simple funnel, it’s now a series of touchpoints and handoffs across the customer journey. For these reasons and others, it’s so important that sales and marketing be aligned in their goals, approach, and actions. Some of the specific areas to align on include lead scoring, internal systems, pipeline measurement alignment, win rates, and SLAs for both teams. 

Eiler and Austin detail that probably the most impactful thing to bring about alignment is communication, sales and marketing talking to each other, getting to know as people those in the other group within the company. On a more tactical level, part of bringing about alignment is a focus on the data. It’s detailed in the book how data can easily become siloed, and if it not paid sufficient attention to and kept current in one system, data can drive a wedge between sales and marketing. They also note how in terms of systems utilized, it’s good to have IT involved because that can help head off data silos with sales and marketing using their own systems.

Also is the book is the results of a survey Eiler and Austin ran, revealing the biggest obstacles to sales and marketing were, in order: communication shortfalls, processes are broken/flawed, measurement done by different metrics, and a lack of accurate data on target accounts. It’s certainly not an easy endeavor to reach sales and marketing alignment, but Eiler and Austin provide some good content to help.

Monday, September 07, 2020

The Story of More by Hope Jahren

The Story of More by Hope Jahren is a good book following up on her biography Lab Girl and this effort subtitled How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here.

Part One: Life - Jahren notes how in 2009 she was asked to teach a class on climate change and the research for that led to The Story of More. The point is made that the problem we have with resources in the world today is one of distribution, many of us consume beyond our needs and many don't have enough resources. The vast majority of deaths in the world come from illness, with in the developed countries those coming from heart disease and cancer, and in less developed countries, from things linked to lack of access to clean water, sewage systems, vaccinations, and antibiotics. Jahren covers that there have been definite improvements in access to clean water and immunizations, but it still a large problem in much of the world.

Part Two: Food - Jahren starts this section by detailing how eating meat requires an enormous amount of resources. Six pounds of grain fed to an animal results in one pound of meat harvested. She makes the point that people don't necessarily need to become vegetarians, they just need to eat less red meat and poultry, as eating less meat means less grain that goes into feeding the animals that are eaten. If the 37 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) cut meat consumption by half, it would free up 120 millions tons of grain per year to feed the hungry. Additionally, there's a similar problem with fish that there is with meat as most fish eaten today are harvested via aquaculture rather than line-caught, and require large amounts of fish food, one pound of salmon requires three pounds of fish meal. Jahren also notes the negative impact of waste, 20% of what American families send to the landfill each day is edible food, around 2/3 pound a day.

Part Three: Energy - Detailed in the book is how we use energy for everything, and energy, just like food is heavily weighted towards developed countries. Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, has just over 13% of the global population and less than half the people there live without electricity. The region also has half of all people globally who live without access to clean water. Back to the idea of distribution, Jahren notes that if all the fuel and electricity used today were distributed equally to every person on the globe, they would have plenty, consuming the same amount as the average person in Switzerland in the 1960s. The mantra around this, and many other things in the book is use less and share more. It's also covered how cars and airplanes are enormous energy hogs, as well as outrageously dangerous, and how most discussion around energy is around how we can get more, not how we can use less.

Part Four: Earth - Jahren writes of how the burning of fossil fuels leads to more carbon dioxide, warmer temperatures, melting ice, and rising waters. We're at a risk for a sixth mass extinction of species, with the last sixty-six million years ago wiping out the dinosaurs. There are wide-scale geo-engineering projects being talked about, and those discussions should occur, but energy conservation requires the least effort of any approach. There is reason for hope, we can foster that by looking at our own lives and how we use.

Appendix: The Action You Take - She closes the book with the notion that each person should think about what matters to them, learn about it, make a change that they can make. Even seemingly simple changes like buying less food so there's less waste and keeping the heater or A/C in the house turned off or down matter. It's noted that home energy use largely driven by the water heater, if someone can go from a fifty gallon heater to twenty, energy usage in the house can be cut a great deal. It's a sobering book to be sure, but also one with reason for hope and tangible ideas that can be implemented.

A Very Punchable Face by Colin Jost

A Very Punchable Face by Colin Jost is a solid memoir from the fifteen-year Saturday Night Live veteran, hired as a staff writer, and then head writer and for the past six years, also co-host of Weekend Update.

Jost provides interesting and entertaining stories of his life, starting with growing up on Staten Island, and at the age of 14, getting accepted into Regis, a free Catholic high school in Manhattan. The school is one of the best in the country, with each year tens of thousands of kids applying for 120 spots in each class. It's covered in the book how it would take Jost at least 90 minutes one-way to commute to and from school, with him on his own taking a bus, ferry, and subway. He and his friends then would often roam New York City after school and Jost while at Regis did speech and debate, something that required having a short-term memory of success or failures, which he noted as helping later while at Saturday Light Live.

Jost got into Harvard and covers in the book how he didn't fit in for much of his freshman year, and then discovered the Harvard Lampoon magazine. He learned he wanted to be a comedy writer and, just as with Regis, it was difficult to get accepted, with hundreds applying every semester and usually only three or four writers being accepted into the Lampoon based on the strength of their writing. He got in on his third attempt and over the course of two and a half years on staff, had more than a hundred pieces published in the magazine. He was elected president in his junior year and notes in the book how he found others who cared about comedy as much as he did.

He graduated Harvard, with his studies in Russian Literature, and got a job as a night editor with a Staten Island newspaper. He wanted to be in comedy so even though he liked the job, saved up enough money to cover rent for two months and quit, sending letters to TV shows asking them to read his writing samples. He took a job writing for a now-defunct company called Animation Collective and while there, got a call from Saturday Night Live based on a submission, and was hired as an SNL staff writer at the age of twenty-two.

There's great stories from Saturday Night Live, as well as his stand-up comedy, which Jost notes that he's been doing for sixteen years, thousands of shows and still fifty to a hundred a year. It was tremendously interesting reading of how Jost after graduating Harvard worked so hard for little money to get started in entertainment, and about his insecurities, being afraid of being boring. Jost also writes about his mom, who was Chief Medical Officer for the New York City Fire Department during 9/11, and what she went through that day and immediately after. It's an excellent book that's insightful and has great stories.

Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen

Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen is another entertaining work of fiction from the author, with the book featuring several of his recurring characters as well as many new in the zany state of Florida. This is the 11th book of Hiaasen's I've read and it's a funny one that doesn't disappoint.






Saturday, August 29, 2020

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni is subtitled A Leadership Fable and the book introduction notes "it is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare."

Lencioni provides the dysfunctions through a fictional story of a newly hired CEO at a technology startup, and after completing the fable about the company and its management team goes over the dysfunctions and how teams can overcome them.

1. Absence of trust - Trust is the foundation of real teamwork. The first dysfunction is a failure on the part of team members to understand and open up to one another, overcoming their need for invulnerability and speaking openly and honestly about their strengths and weaknesses. Lencioni notes that a good way to tackle this is to have people talk about themselves, their background, their lives, and families.

2. Fear of conflict - If there's not trust, there's likely going to be an aversion on the part of team members to having open, constructive, ideological conflict or debate.

3. Lack of commitment - It's a failure to buy into decisions. People don't have to always agree with a decision, but they want to have their views heard and understood before they commit to something, especially if they not 100% behind at first. The concept to go for is disagree and commit.

4. Avoidance of accountability - Once there's clarity and buy-in, people can hold each other accountable.

5. Inattention to results - Status and ego can cause people to become focused on themselves and individual rather than team results. Part of having goals is to have them be simple enough to grasp, and specific enough to be actionable, like for instance adding a certain number of new customers in a certain time frame. Also noted was the statement that "politics is when people choose their words and actions based on how they want others to react rather than based on what they really think."

The flip side positive view of the model is that teams...
1. Trust one another
2. Engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas
3. Commit to decisions and plans of action
4. Hold one another accountable for delivering against those plans
5. Focus on the achievement of collective results

Countdown 1945 by Chris Wallace

Countdown 1945 by Chris Wallace is a good book with the subtitle The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World.

It starts with Vice President Harry Truman elevating to the Presidency with the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945 and covers Truman and others involved in the effort to build and then drop the two atomic bombs on Japan August 6 and 9.

In addition to giving details about the events, Wallace writes about the compelling people involved in them. Featured are Truman, Manhattan Project scientific director J. Robert Oppenheimer, military head General Leslie Graves, Colonel Paul Tibbets Jr. who piloted the plane that dropped the first bomb, one of the women working control dials in the uranium separation plant in Oak Ridge, TN, and a young girl in Japan. Wallace details how after being sworn into office, Truman was told by his Secretary of War that there was an urgent matter they had to speak about, a project underway to develop a new explosive of great power.

Along with the development of the bombs, there's also interesting material in the book about Truman wrestling with the decision of whether or not to drop them. Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945 and projections Truman received had the invasion of Japan by American troops costing the lives of an estimated 250,000 Americans. He had to balance that information against dropping weapons of such destructive power.

The test of the bomb was done on July 16, and the weapons-grade uranium for the bomb was delivered to the Far East about the USS Indianapolis, sunk days later by a Japanese torpedo. Tibbets and his flight crew flew the Enola Gay and the bomb codenamed Little Boy close to seven hours from Tinian Island to Hiroshima. It exploded 1,890 feet above the city, with the Enola Gay then six miles away, flying fast to try to get away from the blast and accompanying shock wave. On August 8, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and the dropping a day later of the bomb Fat Man was a mission riddled with near misses. The plane, Bock's Car, was short on fuel, not enough to make it back to Tinian so landed on Okinawa. Also, the original target was the city of Kokura, but weather conditions there led to the alternate target of Nagasaki being bombed.

Japan surrendered shortly after and the epilogue of the book covers the lives after the war of people featured in the book, and how they viewed the dropping of the bombs and creation of the nuclear age.

Saturday, July 04, 2020

The Impossible First by Colin O'Brady

The Impossible First by Colin O'Brady is an excellent book on his 2018 solo trek all the way across Antarctica.

The crossing had never before been done without assistance, and O'Brady raced against British explorer Captain Louis Rudd, also attempting to complete the 932 mile solo crossing. Each man skied while pulling a sled with close to two months of supplies and the book a remarkable tale from a dangerous and beautiful place.

Also in the book is writing about O'Brady's Explorer's Grand Slam expedition in 2016. He reached the summit of the highest mountain on each of the seven continents and trekked to both the North and South Pole in just over four months, the fastest time that anyone had ever done the seven summits, much less also the two poles. Additionally, O'Brady reached the highest point in all fifty US states in a record-breaking 21 days and he in The Impossible First writes a great book on his efforts.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Denali's Howl by Andy Hall

Denali's Howl by Andy Hall is on a June 1967 climbing disaster in Alaska that claimed the lives of seven people on Denali, the highest mountain in North America. The book written in 2014 is subtitled The Deadliest Climbing Disaster on America's Wildest Peak and Hall a journalist who at the time of the tragedy was living in Denali National Park, the five-year-old son of the park superintendent.

The seven who died were part of the Wilcox Expedition, a twelve man group cobbled together and led by Joe Wilcox. There were some shortfalls in teamwork between the men and poor decisions made in terms of gear brought, but the disaster caused more than anything else by a once in a lifetime blizzard. Four in the party went up to the summit one day and returned back down to the remaining eight. Then one person decided to descend without a summit bid, and the seven men who would perish headed up. There was only primitive weather forecasting available in 1967 and what the men faced was a confluence of meteorological events, described by Hall as one of the most violent storms ever recorded on the mountain. He recounts a 1997 storm that people barely survived, with that storm lasting twelve hours rather than the seven days of the 1967 storm, with winds likely half the strength of those 30 years earlier.

Hall provides interesting content about rescue operations on the mountain and the attempt to save the men, but the storm was bad that by the time rescue operations launched, the men almost certainly were dead. The five survivors barely made it down and a rescue party only found three bodies on the mountain, two of them fairly close together. The story that Hall tells was of a dangerous undertaking combined with a once in a lifetime storm.

Keep Going by Austin Kleon

Keep Going by Austin Kleon is noted as having been done because he needed to read it, a great reason to be sure, and the book subtitled 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad, with some ideas from it below:

1. Every day is Groundhog Day - You just have to control what you can, in the day that you're in. If you can establish a daily routine, all the better.

2. Build a bliss station - Disconnect yourself from the world for your own good. Airplane mode can be a way of life. Learn how to say no.

3. Forget the noun, do the verb - "Creative" is not a verb. Be willing to play in your creative work, it's ok to practice for practice's sake.

4. Make gifts - Let your work be your hobby, one of the easiest ways to hate something is to turn it into a job. If you put your work into the world, don't obsess on consumption numbers. Make stuff to give to people.

5. The ordinary + extra attention = the extraordinary - There's great things in the everyday world around us and great things we can do with them. Slow down and draw things out. Pay attention to what you pay attention to.

6. Slay the art monsters - Art is supposed to make our lives betters. This applies both to art we create and art we consume. If it's not beneficial, walk away.

7. You are allowed to change your mind - To change is to be alive. It's good to say "I don't know," and be kind. Think more of being like-hearted with others and less of being like-minded. Read old books, visit the past.

8. When in doubt, tidy up - Keep your tools tidy and your materials messy. Leave things better than you found them and do no harm. The writer David Sedaris picks up trash by the road, he estimates for 3-8 hours a day.

9. Demons hate fresh air - Get out and walk, be part of the world. Walking is good for physical, spiritual, and mental health. See the world rather than a screen.

10. Plant your garden - Think of the permanence of nature, and how like it, creativity has seasons. Live for the long haul and in hard times, remember that this too shall pass. Keep doing your verbs, whatever they may be.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham is an excellent book subtitled The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster. Written in 2019, it's about Reactor Number Four of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station exploding early in the morning of Sunday April 26, 1986 and the aftermath of that.

It's a remarkable level of detail from Higginbotham, covering events that as the book jacket notes, have been clouded from the beginning by secrecy, propaganda, and misinformation. The first reactor at Chernobyl came online in the mid-1970s and by 1986, there were four reactors built, with two more under construction and scheduled to come online in 1988. Construction and operation of the plant at Chernobyl was an ongoing process of dealing with unrealistic deadlines being passed down from leaders, planning agencies, and bureaucratic committees. What this led to was both often delayed safety tests and, even more critically, systems that demanded an extreme level of precision from operators just to function as they should. The water and graphite nuclear reactor design used in Chernobyl, and designed by the head of the Soviet Institute of Atomic Energy, was inherently less safe than that used in the West on Nuclear power plants. A major flaw in them was something called a positive void coefficient, making the reactors vulnerable to a runaway chain reaction in the even of a loss of coolant. The design of the reactor was such that triggering the shut-down actually had great potential to cause a meltdown. Additionally, the Soviet reactors had no containment dome like over reactors in the west, safety measures were often never passed along to the people who needed them, and accidents were to be regarded as state secrets.

The test being done on Reactor Number Four was to pilot it through a shutdown. There was definitely at least one human error made that night, but the system itself was the larger cause of the reactor being destabilized, leading to an explosion that completely destroyed the core of the reactor. What was left was a radioactive blaze of uranium fuel and graphite. For the better part of a day, it wasn't communicated that the reactor had been destroyed and that radiation was being released as people were afraid to deliver bad news or the destruction of the reactor was outside the realm of what they could accept. People weren't acknowledging that there even was an explosion, just saying there was an accident and it's being taken care of. Workers at the plant lived in the 50,000 person city of Priyat, a ten minute drive away and the order to evacuate the city was given at 10:00AM Sunday morning, with people receiving it at 1:10PM, a day and a half after the explosion. Around that time was when the first radiation cloud appeared over Denmark.

Initial efforts at stopping the release of radioactive contamination from the torn apart reactor, with fire still burning inside, had bags of sand and boron dropped from helicopters into the destroyed reactor. As the days went on after the explosion, there were two primary concerns, both having to do with the burning radioactive mass in the destroyed reactor, which combined with sand and boron had turned into a lava-like material burning its way down through the floor. If the mass came into contact with the water pools underneath the reactor, it could cause a steam explosion taking out the other three reactors, as Higginbotham writes generating "enough fallout into the atmosphere to render a large swath of Europe uninhabitable for a hundred years." And if that calamity was averted, there was also the possibility of the mass burning into the earth. This could have been cataclysmic if the mass got into the water tables, contaminating drinking water for millions.

To alleviate the first concern, someone had to go underneath the burning reactor and manually open the valves to pump out the water in the steam suppression pools, an extremely dangerous task that was completed successfully. The next concern was about the water tables. To alleviate this risk, they built a heat exchanger to cool the earth and stop the molten mass from continuing to melt through. This heat exchanger was never actually turned on, though, and what they eventually found was the reactor just burned itself out. All the efforts dropping sand and boron into the reactor were mostly pointless, but the lava did burn perilously close to getting through to the earth. The on the ground cleanup then involved people being drafted into service and serving as liquidators manually clearing debris, each working for a very short period of time to limit their exposure to radiation. Once this completed, a containment structure, or sarcophagus, was built around the destroyed reactor, completed seven months after the explosion. Due to the radioactive fallout, eventually every child from preschool to the seventh grade was temporarily evacuated out of Kiev, some 363,000 children, and there had to be a permanent resettlement of 116,000 people. 

After this came the scapegoating, the sending to prison of the director and others involved and who lived. Mention in the investigation was made of design defects, but then swept aside in favor of the more palatable operator error assignment of blame. While it true that the operators played a small role in causing the disaster, the main fault lay with the design of the plant, the need for perfection on the part of the operators, and the aggressive Soviet bureaucracy behind everything. Higginbotham in the book provides a meticulously reported look at the disaster, its causes, the reaction to it, and the people involved.