Why I don’t use the phone on my phone

“Not picking up the phone would be like someone knocking at your door and you standing behind it not answering. It was, at the very least, rude, and quite possibly sneaky or creepy or something. Besides, as the phone rang, there were always so many questions, so many things to sort out. Who was it? What did they want? Was it for … me?”

This is an interesting piece by Alexis C. Madrigal on the demise of phone calls. But I don’t think he does enough to drive home the shift that has taken place.

Phone calls are an especially violent form of communication. This is in part because they are strictly synchronous – all participants have to take part at the same time – but also because a ringing telephone is incredibly distracting.

Unless it has been scheduled beforehand, a phone call by definition places the caller’s needs above the recipient. Without the screening technology of newer forms of communication, anyone with your number can impose their consciousness onto yours.

Even if you don’t answer. No matter what you are doing.

But the plethora of asynchronous communications methods – text messages, email, social media etc. – means the bar to phone calls is now higher. Or at least it should be.

If it isn’t life or death, or you don’t need an answer five minutes ago, then don’t call me. There are plenty of ways to communicate that don’t prioritise one person above another.

Calling when it isn’t necessary is, in fact, quite rude.

“No one picks up the phone anymore. Even many businesses do everything they can to avoid picking up the phone… There are many reasons for the slow erosion of this commons. The most important aspect is structural: There are simply more communication options.”

Unfortunately, society hasn’t quite caught up to this new norm. Or, at least, older generations haven’t.

Politicians are the reason there is uncertainty

“At least 14 years ago, our political leaders were told that there was an urgent need to address the crisis in business confidence, in the energy and energy-intensive manufacturing sectors, due to the absence of credible long-term policies to address carbon abatement.

This is Ken Henry, quoted in an extraordinary story in the Australian Financial Review today.

Since then the center-left Labor party enacted a carbon tax, which was then repealed almost immediately upon the center-right Liberal party taking power.

The Liberal government then failed to enact another scheme that was designed to give “confidence” after the party balked. They did not attempt to enlist support from the Labor party.

What’s missing is the realisation that uncertainty is not some exogenous factor, but stems from the fact that there are many points of view. As a result, merely barrelling over political opponents isn’t going to solve anything.

When the Liberals are in power the uncertainty stems from the fact Labor will eventually get in and do something, and when Labor are in power the fear is that it will all eventually be undone. Barring a switch to one party rule, the only way to end political uncertainty is to work together.

Or, as it appears businesses are now doing, cut out politicians altogether:

…They have been talking among themselves about establishing an industry-led, self-regulating set of measures which would reduce emissions, ensure energy reliability and provide investor stability, all of which politics has failed to deliver.

Primed for determinism

…the human mind is built to identify for each event a definite cause and can therefore have a hard time accepting the influence of unrelated or random factors. And so the first step is to realize that success or failure sometimes arises neither from great skill nor from great incompetence but from, as the economist Armen Alchian wrote, “fortuitous circumstances.”

This from The Drunkards Walk by Leonard Mlodinow. You can see this phenomena everywhere from politics to sports. We are quick to assign cause and effect, blame and praise, without considering the probability of it having taken place.

It reminds me of the brilliant Thinking In Bets, which I might break out again for another read.

…When we look at extraordinary accomplishments in sport – or elsewhere – we should keep in mind that extraordinary events can happen without extraordinary causes. Random events often look like nonrandom events, and in interpreting human affairs we must take care not to confuse the two.

More proof Trump isn’t interested in learning anything

I’m not quite sure what to make of The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis, and, to be honest, I’m not sure that he does either.

It’s the story of the Trump transition. Or, rather, the lack of one. The book isn’t particularly long. More like a Vanity Fair column that got out of hand. Some of the vignettes of public service meander, too many are hagiographic, and there are more than necessary.

Lewis also explicitly repeats themes – that most of the problems with government are practical rather than political, for example.

But Fifth Risk is a brilliant portrait of what happens when the people in charge are thoroughly unconcerned with learning anything new. Either because they think they know better, tribalism stops them recognising anyone else’s competence, or they just don’t want to know.

…A month after the election, Pyle arrived for a meeting with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Deputy Secretary Sherwood-Randall, and Knobloch…“He did not seem motivated to spend a lot of time understanding the place,” says Sherwood-Randall. “He didn’t bring a pencil or a piece of paper. He didn’t ask questions. He spent an hour. That was it. He never asked to meet with us again.”

…Pyle eventually sent over a list of seventy-four questions he wanted answers to. His list addressed some of the subjects covered in the briefing materials, but also a few not: Can you provide a list of all Department of Energy employees or contractors who have attended any Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Carbon meetings? Can you provide a list of Department employees or contractors who attended any of the Conference of the Parties (under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) in the last five years? That, in a nutshell, was the spirit of the Trump enterprise. “It reminded me of McCarthyism,” says Sherwood-Randall.

…Pyle vanished from the scene. According to a former Obama official, he was replaced by a handful of young ideologues who called themselves “the Beachhead Team.” “They mainly ran around the building insulting people,” says a former Obama official. “There was a mentality that everything that government does is stupid and bad and the people in it are stupid and bad,” says another.

Then again, I’m not sure we didn’t already know this about the Trump organisation. So far I’ve read every book Lewis has written, and I will probably buy the next as well. But this one may be safe to miss.

The writing is pretty good though.

Another adjacent possible

Working my way through one of the more fascinating technology books I’ve ever come across, Code by Charles Petzold. I stumbled across this passage:

nobody in the nineteenth century made the connection between the ANDs and ORs of Boolean algebra and the wiring of simple switches in series and in parallel. No mathematician, no electrician, no telegraph operator, nobody. Not even that icon of the computer revolution Charles Babbage (1792–1871), who had corresponded with Boole and knew his work, and who struggled for much of his life designing first a Difference Engine and then an Analytical Engine that a century later would be regarded as the precursors to modern computers…

This is from a chapter on Boolean logic (aka Boolean algebra), which you might have come across if you have ever studied programming, statistics or electrical engineering.

I’ve never before had it explained to me in such a cogent fashion. But what this sections highlights in particular (and the book as a whole rams home) is the power of bringing together seemingly disconnected ideas, theories and fields.

…What might have helped Babbage, we know now, was the realization that perhaps instead of gears and levers to perform calculations, a computer might better be built out of telegraph relays…

This is a great book if you want to understand how computers work, as it combines engineering and information theory to construct a virtual computer, step by step. Starting with a simple light bulb circuit, through logic gates, operating systems and graphical interfaces.

But it is arguably more valuable in demonstrating how something as complex as a computer draws from many fields.


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