20180822 A random list of ten books

Post date: Aug 23, 2018 7:02:03 AM

When I studied water management I had to read the usual books such as Introduction into Physical Geography, Special Functions in Hydrology, Selected Readings in Soil Physics, GIS for Land Use Analysis etcetera. These books were part of the curriculum, and as such they were indispensable for becoming a water manager. Good books. But they were more or less required reading, anyone working in this field has read some version of them. The usual suspects.

But over time I stumbled upon some books that might have been as important for my work. I list ten of them, in no particular order. A completely subjective list:

  • Mr China. Tim Clissold. If you ever have a project in China, are doing business in China or want to understand what cultural differences can do to good intensions, read this book. Extremely funny at some pages, but completely insane at others.
  • Facing the Jamuna. Hanna Schmuck-Widmann. An anthropologist describes the understanding and misunderstanding between Char people (people crafting a living on the moving islands in the large Bangladesh rivers) and western engineers and scientists involved in solving Bangladesh water management problems. Do they have a beginning of understanding the other?
  • Why things bite back. Edward Tenner. A book about the revenge effects and unintentional consequences of technology. Why do our technological solutions sometimes seem to create a whole new set of problems, which are even more difficult to solve than the original problem?
  • The inmates are running the asylum. Alan Cooper. This book is about user-oriented design of software, but the story is much wider applicable. Focus on the obvious difference between design and engineering. Albert Einstein said that we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. This book is exactly about that. And Alan Cooper introduced me to the concepts of personas.
  • The logic of failure. Dietrich Dorner. Can we really understand complex systems, or are we stumbling our way through complex systems by learning by experimenting? About complex systems, good intentions and spectacular failures.
  • The 5th discipline. Peter Senge. A mixture between system dynamics and a catalogue of archetypes for well known challenges such as Tragedy-Of-The-Commons. What are the dynamics that cause them, and what are the remedies. I find the ideas are fascinating, but I have trouble finding the real applications of the archetypes. They seem too conceptual.
  • The mythical man month. Fred Brooks. Essays about software development, but very applicable to other projects. Its central theme is that "adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”. One of my favourites is the notion of “pilot projects” or "prototypes". When designing a system, a team will design a throw-away system (whether it intends to or not). This system acts as a "pilot plant" that reveals problems and challenges that will subsequently cause a complete redesign of the system. I love that notion and I even think that you will always build prototypes and you build nothing but prototypes.
  • Thinking fast and slow. Daniel Kahneman talks about the mechanisms at work to let us make decisions. Why are some decisions plainly wrong and how can we recognise the dangerous patterns that lead to bad decisions. Can we correct ourselves when the brain starts to process incomplete or false information as being true. In this book Kahneman also introduced me to the pre-mortem analysis as a power tool in project analysis.
  • Confession of an economic hitman. John Perkins. Perkins talks about the sometimes very obscure role of organisations such as WorldBank and IMF in the world of financing development. Are these organisations instruments for a better world, or are they tools for American Foreign Politics. Highly praised and equally highly criticised book. Up to the reader to decide.
  • A Pattern Language and the companion book The timeless way of building by Christopher Alexander. The very first text on patterns and pattern languages as design principle. Focused on architecture, design and construction of cities and buildings, but I think the ideas allow for infinite extensions.

I don’t think these books are compulsory reading for water managers. The list is far from complete and I am not sure whether I recommend these books. And some might be very outdated. But they gave me some necessary context. The world around water management. And as such they might have been as relevant as the compulsory readings.