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.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

King of the World by David Remnick

King of the World by David Remnick is a thorough book subtitled Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero. Written in 1998 by the longtime New Yorker editor, the book focuses on Ali's life up until the time that his title stripped and ability to box professionally taken away following his refusal of military service during Vietnam.

Ali was born Cassius Clay and grew up black middle class in Louisville, Kentucky. He was as a talker from a young age and his bicycle stolen when he twelve, leading to a kindly police officer who ran a local gym suggesting to Clay that he learn how to fight, and then training him. Clay was blessed with size and quickness, and also worked extremely hard at the craft of boxing. He never smoke, never drank, and just trained to build his body up. He talked about how good he was, how he would be champion of the world someday, and was by all accounts a nice kid, not a bully. He entered the main black high school in 1957 for the 10th grade, and wasn't a good student, but the principal liked him and sent him through, saying that he was going to be a great boxing champion. By the age of eighteen, Clay had an amateur record of 100 wins and 8 losses, and two national golden gloves championships.

Clay won a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics in Rome and then turned pro. Remnick in the book provides great detail about what a force of nature Clay was in his late teens and early twenties, both in terms of physical prowess and showmanship. Related to this, it was interesting reading about the influence sportswriters had in crafting narratives to the public, and most didn't like Clay due to his bombastic personality. When he was in high school, Clay had wanted to write a term paper on the Black Muslims and in his early twenties, he heard about Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam that he the leader of. Clay was a searcher, and in the Muslim religion he found something that resonated with him, and became close with one another Nation of Islam leader, Malcolm X.

Clay's first fight for the heavyweight title was against Sonny Liston in February 1964 and few expected Clay to win the fight, with Liston viewed by many as an unstoppable force. Clay defeated Liston and very shortly after confirmed that he had become a member of the Nation of Islam, also noting that Black Muslims wasn't a real thing, rather a word made up by the press. Once Clay won, Elijah Muhammad welcomed Clay into the fold, his fold. On March 6, Elijah Muhammad gave a radio address and said that Muhammad Ali would be the boxer's new name. Elijah Muhammad had begun to view Malcolm X as a rival for power within the Nation of Islam, speaking in favor a civil rights bill, and working with Martin Luther King, whom Elijah Muhammad wanted to not associate with. As a result, Malcolm X was cast out of the Nation, and Ali no longer talked with him.

The rematch between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston was to be in November 1964, but three days before the fight, Ali got a hernia, and the fight rescheduled for May 1965. Malcolm X was killed in February 1965 and Ali dominated Liston in the fight, knocking him out in the first round, leading to the famous photo of he standing over the fallen boxer. Later in the year Ali fought and defeated Floyd Patterson and three months after that began his battle with the US government over Vietnam. He was reclassified so that he could be drafted and said that he had no quarrel with the Vietcong. He started speaking out against the war and said that he wouldn't simply fight exhibitions for the government to satisfy his service requirement. In April 1967 he appeared at a US Armed Forces location where he had been summoned, and said that he was refusing draft orders as a minister of the religion of Islam. He was sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The Supreme Court would clear him in 1971, but he didn't box for three and a half years, and then regained the heavyweight championship in 1974 against George Forman in Kinshasa, Zaire. By the time of his final bouts in 1981 his neurological decline, eventually to become Parkinson's, had almost certainly begun already. Ali later in his life greatly regretted his casting aside of Malcolm X and died in 2016 at seventy-four.

The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday

The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday is a solid book about stoicism and the writing of Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-180), Seneca, and others.

Holiday in the introduction notes that the book isn't a study of stoicism and the people who wrote about it, rather an attempt to "collect, understand, and publish their lessons and tricks." The hope is to show how to turn an obstacle into an advantage; overcoming obstacles is about perception (our attitude towards obstacles or problems), action (what we do about obstacles), and will (how we handle defeat or difficulty). There's good content from Holiday, with below each chapter in his book and what stood out from it:


The discipline of perspective - The goal is to see opportunity in difficulties. They're going to arise, so what becomes important is how we react.

Recognize your power - We can't always control what happens to us, but we can control how it affects our psyche and how it makes us feel. We're never completely powerless.

Steady your nerves - In situations that can overwhelm, grace, poise, and nerve are the most important characteristics someone can have as without them, other characteristics like talent can't be employed.

Control your emotions - Uncertainty and fear are relieved by training and logic. Through this, one can become in control of their emotions and not get rattled at the moments of greatest stress.

Practice objectivity - It's often better to observe obstacles, not also perceive them and  read into problems. Try to remove yourself from the equation in a situation, see it for what it is, not how you're impacted.

Alter your perspective - Look at problems from a new angle. Also, don't overstate the importance of problems, quoted is Richard Branson with "business opportunities are like buses; there's always another coming around."

Is it up to you? - Someone facing obstacles should be thinking of whether there's a chance at success. If there is, it may well be worth going after. Also, it's about focusing on things that can be changed, not what can't.

Live in the present moment - It's not worth the energy to spend thinking about whether things are fair or you're at a disadvantage. Remember also that a given time isn't your entire life, just a moment in it.

Think differently - Since our perceptions influence what can be done, it's often going to be best to simply be optimistic that something can be accomplished.

Finding the opportunity - When we control our emotions in looking at a problem, it enables the possibility of looking at the opportunity inside the obstacle, even if it's just seeing it as something to learn from.

Prepare to act - The worst thing to happen with a problem is to lose your head, then you have to deal with both the problem and your reaction to it.


The discipline of action - When you're dealt a bad hand or suffer a misfortune, should run towards it, looking to take action and improve your lot. What's important is what you do after something bad happens.

Get moving - Take an opening and press forward, or get the bat off your shoulder and take a swing. if you've done something, great, do more. Stay moving, always. If you want momentum, get started so it can create.

Practice persistence - Keep trying, if something doesn't work, try something different. The answer to how to do something may be entirely unexpected. It's supposed to be hard. First attempts aren't expected to succeed.

Iterate - There's nothing wrong with failing, it's how we know what doesn't work. Stories of great success are often preceded by stories of epic failure as improvement can come from it.

Follow the process - Think about the task at hand. Excellence is just a matter of steps repeated. Things at first are hard, and then they're not. Things don't happen all at once and small steps are better than no steps.

Do your job, do it right - Along the way to success, we're all going to have some jobs we don't want to do, do it with pride anyways, everything we do matters. A job is only degrading if we give less to it than we're capable.

What's right is what works - We get things done, by just that, by getting them done. Don't get too caught up in what you or someone else thinks is the correct way to do things. Do the best you can with what you've got.

In praise of the flank attack - Unexpected approaches are often the best kind. Be creative, find workarounds, and tactics others might not have thought of.

Use obstacles against themselves - Sometimes restraint is the best action to take, have patience and let things settle. Passive resistance can in fact be incredibly active.

Channel your energy - Adversity can harden you. Or it can loosen you up and make you better if you let it. It's seeking the right balance of physical looseness and mental tightness.

Seize the offensive - Use negative events as triggers to get things done, push forward. Life favors the bold at time of decision points.

Prepare for none of it to work - Nothing can prevent us from trying. Problems are a chance for us to do our best. Be the type of person who gets things done.


The discipline of the will - Will is taking on a onerous task without giving in to hopelessness, to be in great difficulty and tell oneself "this too shall pass." Strength in terrible times is when strength most needed.

Build your inner citadel - Nobody is born with a steel backbone, we have to forge it. We're going to be more successful toughening ourselves up than making the world easier. To be great at something takes practice.

Anticipation (thinking negatively) - Think in advance of what things can go wrong, that way you're not surprised by them, and you may even be prepared to deal with them. Know that things will go wrong.

The art of acquiescence - Be willing to accept, and not resent, a difficulty or shortcoming. You don't have to like something, but you can't let it control you. Things will do what they do sometimes, and we react from there.

Love everything that happens: amor fati - When bad things happen, they happen. We then should continue forward with unfailing cheer. We make the best of things.

Perseverance - It's not about what happens in the beginning, or the middle, it's continuing forward all the way through, to endure.

Something bigger than yourself - There's a bigger cause to life. It's not all about us. Whatever problem we're going through isn't really unfair, it just is what it is. Try to leave things a little better than before we started.

Meditate on your mortality - The things we think are so important, really aren't. If something is in our control, it's worth our energy. If something is out of our control, it's not worth our energy. Eventually we'll be gone.

Prepare to start again - Behind mountains are more mountains. There's always another challenge. Get used to it. Passing one obstacle means you're worthy of more.

The book has excellent wisdom to impart and in the preface, Holiday quotes what Aurelius wrote to himself...

"Our actions may be impeded... but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way."

All That You Leave Behind by Erin Lee Carr

All That You Leave Behind by Erin Lee Carr is a memoir by the filmmaker and daughter of  David Carr, the late New York Times media writer and author of The Night of the Gun, which I wrote about after his death in 2015.

Erin Lee Carr has directed documentaries for HBO, with Thought Crimes, At the Heart of Gold, and I Love You, Now Die as well as Drug Short, an episode of the Netflix series Dirty Money. She in this book shows herself to be an excellent writer and tells a very open tale of loss, grief, and making one's way in the world, including in the creative world that she and her father worked in.

It was a compelling book, and ended with "Things I learned from David Carr: a list":

Listen when you enter a room.
Don't buy into your myth.
Don't be the first one to talk, but if you do talk first, say something smart.
Speak and then stop; don't stutter or mumble; be strong in what you have to say.
You have to work the phones. Call people. Don't rely on emails.
Ask questions but ask the right questions.
Ask people what mistakes they've made so you can get their shortcuts.
Know when enough is enough.
Make eye contact with as many people as possible.
Don't be in shitty relationships because you are tired of being alone.
Be grateful for the things you have in this life. You are lucky.
Practice patience even though it's one of the hardest things to master.
Failure is a part of the process, maybe the most important part.
Alcohol is not a necessary component of life.
Street hotdogs are not your friend.
Remind yourself that nobody said this would be easy.
If more negative things come out of your mouth than positive, then Houston, we have a problem.
We contain multitudes.
Always love (see band: Nada Surf).
Have a dance move and don't be afraid to rock it.
Don't go home just because you are tired.
Don't take credit for work that is not yours. If your boss does this, take note.
Be generous with praise and be specific in that praise: "that line was killer."
Cats are terrible, they poop in your house.
Say what you mean and mean what you say.
Be defiant.
Do the next right thing.
Our dogs are us. Only cuter.
You are loved and you belong to me, the world, and yourself.