“Now, this building isn’t there anymore.”
“Off to a promising start, then!”
So begins a typical episode of Well There’s Your Problem, a self-described “podcast with slides” on YouTube. Each installment explores a different engineering disaster, from the sinking of the MS Estonia to the Grenfell Tower fire to the Goiânia radioactive contamination accident. The show is hosted by structural engineer Justin Roczniak, law student Alice Caldwell-Kelly, and systems analyst Liam Anderson, who provide mordant perspectives on preventable accidents, institutional neglect, and mass casualties. Originally started as an offshoot of Roczniak’s channel donoteat01, which uses video games to explain urban development, it has since evolved into its own entity.
As the title might suggest, the show falls squarely in the less “professional” end of the podcasting spectrum. This is no intricately edited and refined production like 99% Invisible or anything from NPR; it’s three friends riffing, with frequent diversions and asides. Roczniak, narrating the topics of each episode for his co-hosts over video chat through his shared desktop screen, will demonstrate events with crude Microsoft Paint drawings, and the “activate Windows” prompt sometimes interrupts them. It’s a hangout show, and if you can appreciate the hosts’ banter and shared, offbeat (often very dark) sense of humor, then you’ll have fun with them and learn a good deal along the way.
All three hosts are well-read socialists, and approach each week’s disaster with such a framework in mind. More than simply explaining the series of oversights and malfunctions which led to the Bhopal gas leak, they connect those problems to neglect on the part of Union Carbide, the company that owned the chemical plant at the center of the incident. Furthermore, they view this incident as damning not only Union Carbide, but also the entire capitalist system which allowed the company to outsource the production of dangerous materials to a place where they figured they could get away with adhering to fewer safety standards.
This perspective is also demonstrated in the show’s choice of subject matter: The “engineering” failures it focuses on are not always of structures or vehicles, but sometimes the failures of systems or institutions. They’ve made episodes on the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses, the concept of print media, and a Austrian wine scandal. Bonus episodes for Patreon backers have even critiqued the American system of higher education and the entire existence of Protestantism. The show continually emphasizes the holistic aspect of proper design and safety in engineering — that it is a natural extension of the priorities concerning safety and a regard for human life (or lack thereof) within the wider society.
Despite their irreverence, the hosts are clearly invested in social justice and often angry on behalf of the victims of the various disasters they discuss. Take, for instance, the episode on the Aberfan disaster. Discussing the aftermath of the event, the hosts note with disgust that the government initially offered parents of the 116 children who died a paltry £50 each. After calculating that this works out to around £800 today, they sarcastically suggest that each surviving child in the town could have been bought an Xbox as consolation. Since then, it has become a running joke for them to look at the settlements for victims of other disasters (which as a rule are similarly low) in terms of how many Xboxes one could buy with the money. If there’s a central philosophy of Well There’s Your Problem (other than “Always call 811 before you dig” or “Train good, car bad”), it’s that you have to laugh, because the only other option is to sputter incoherently in rage.
Hey, ya know how we look back in history at kings and emperors and ask ourselves “What the hell was that about, giving all that power to just one guy?” Well, if we haven’t already, we’ll be saying that about the Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Elon Musks of the world today. “What the hell was that about, giving all the profits to just one guy?”
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