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.

Ideas are nothing without execution

Robert Hooke is the poster boy for the notion that it is not sufficient to have a good idea.

As I’ve lugged Lisa Jardin’s biography of Hooke around over the past few weeks, it’s been hard to explain who exactly Hooke was. You may remember him as the ugly cretin in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos series.

But Hooke was so much more than that caricature. He was a brilliant polymath who coined the term "cell", redesigned much of London along with Christopher Wren, built instruments for Robert Boyle, and was long-standing curator of experiments in the early years of the Royal Society.

He dabbled in so many things. Had so many ideas. But no one I encountered had ever heard of him. Hooke consistently got himself 90% of the way there, but it was others that scored the goals.

"…Hooke is the man who almost made great discoveries now tied to the names and enduring fame of others: Boyle’s law of pressure of enclosed gases; Newton’s inverse square law of gravitational attraction; Huygen’s theory of the isochronous pendulum clock; Harrison’s longitude timekeeper.

It’s the notion that Hooke came up with Newton’s inverse square law of gravity, or inspired it, or something in between, that best illustrates this point. From my little research, it seems clear that there is something to Hooke’s claim. But it was undoubtedly Newton that had the mathematical brilliance to prove it, and for that he is remembered and Hooke is not.

It wasn’t enough to have the idea. The idea is nothing without execution.

"In Newton’s mind, priority lay with the person who had produced the mathematical proof of the elliptical motion of the planets, not the one who had proposed such a motion hypothetically in conversation, as part of a broad speculative discussion of planetary movement."

I really recommend The Curious Life of Robert Hooke by Lisa Jardine. I’ve now read a few of her books, loved them all, and am shooting for the set.

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