By the time I first moved to Boulder in 1996, it was already known that Rocky Flats had contaminated a lot of the landscape nearby with nuclear wasteBy the time I first moved to Boulder in 1996, it was already known that Rocky Flats had contaminated a lot of the landscape nearby with nuclear waste while manufacturing plutonium bomb triggers for more than four decades. I did not pay a great deal of attention to this, however, since the plant was in the process of being cleaned up and rather far away (or so I thought).
Since moving out Boulder, however, I can now see the north edge of it on my way to work. So when I heard about Kristin Iversen's memoir chronicling growing up just a few miles away from the plant, I figured it was a good time to learn a little local history.
Hers is an extraordinarily sobering and eye-opening book.
It begins in the core of her own nuclear family, Midwestern transplants pursuing the American dream in the Denver suburb of Arvada, but it's not long before her personal history intersects with that of the top-secret plant. The author's overlay of her family's 1969 Mother's Day celebration at an Italian restaurant with snippets of an out of control plutonium fire happening at the plant - and the gale force winds blowing a still unknown amount of fallout over her family and thousands of others that day - sets a compelling tone for the book.
Iversen is a fluid and spare writer, and though I wasn't sure how interested I would be in her family's personal story, I soon found myself drawn in to her recollection of a deeply recognizable American childhood. Hers is a family whose Scandinavian tendencies towards silent suffering are enhanced by both deepening familial tragedy and a neighborhood commitment to both patriotic and pragmatic denial of where much of the community's money comes from. She grew up thinking the plant, run by Dow at the time, manufactured Scrubbing Bubbles. And though she does not know the mud at the bottom of the swimming hole she is dared to jump into as a kid is contaminated with dense plutonium, our knowledge of that fact makes for a fraught reading experience.
Iversen discusses in depth the dedicated work of those who eventually broke the conspiracy of silence about the danger in and around the plant, and though the grand jury evidence that drove its eventual shutdown remains sealed, enough information has leaked to make it clear that major crimes were committed against an unsuspecting public in the name of Cold War expediency. It's also clear that a lot of people got sick because of the prioritization of production over safety, and it's heartbreaking to read about the individuals Iversen highlights.
The official line of the government is that the plant area is essentially cleaned up now and poses no further danger to the public. But the burrowing animals who live deeper than the surface layer of decontaminated soil don't know they shouldn't be bringing that buried plutonium up from below, and the 100-mile an hour winds that regularly visit the Front Range are likely to still blow it towards what is now several million people downwind.
In discussing the current state of the plant and the spate of new development that has grown up around it, Iversen briefly touches on the fact that many people worked for decades in the so-called "hot" zones of the plant with no ill effects, and that there is ambiguity in studies linking plutonium to health problems. It's clear she does not believe the official line that everything is just fine, however, and I came away from the book largely agreeing with her. While not everyone who lives in that area may be affected, the risk is still real, particularly for children. In weaving together her personal story with that of the larger community, Iversen does a beautiful job of highlighting how easily human beings still wield the tool of denial even when clear information is available. ...more
Jack Stack was plant manager at International Harvester when a recession threw his and many of his coworkers' jobs in jeopardy. To save them, they camJack Stack was plant manager at International Harvester when a recession threw his and many of his coworkers' jobs in jeopardy. To save them, they came up with the creative solution of pulling everyone together, borrowing a lot of money, buying the plant from IH and turning it into an employee-owned-and-run operation.
After the purchase, Stack and his team had to figure out how not just to do the jobs they were already trained to do, but how to also successfully manage and grow their fledgling operation. A Stake in the Outcome highlights the principles they developed to turn their team of clock-punching employees into savvy, vested owners.
Stack has written a previous book, The Great Game of Business, in which he describes how they began to do this. He is a firm believer that everyone in a company, all the way down to the janitorial staff, can be taught to understand how things run and what has to be done to succeed, and he sees a commitment to opening up the financial books and educating everyone on the meaning of the numbers as key.
Over the years, however, Stack learned that giving people stock options and teaching them how to optimize profit in their own departments isn't always enough to develop the long term thinking needed for a truly successful owner's mindset. This book delves more deeply into some of the issues they ran into in this regard, including struggles to diversify that pushed people out of their comfort zones, challenges with the imbalance of stock value between old and newer employees, and the thorny problem posed by the need to have enough cash on hand to liquidate the stock of retiring employees.
Stack is an accessible writer, and despite my lack of knowledge about their core business of engine remanufacturing, it was easy to understand the universal problems they faced. It was also inspiring to read how they solved them. As the owner of a rapidly growing business myself, I appreciated being able to learn from Stack's long term perspective and understand the unintended consequences of actions they took that he was not able to see until years later. This is a valuable and thought-provoking book that has given me a great deal to consider about how to better build my own company. ...more