Non fiction / Read Harder

Book review: The Fifth Risk

Okay, this book was super stressful because it was largely about the impact of an idiot president can have on a country. It was also the third book I read in the Read Harder Challenge (book about journalism or book by a journalist). I loved it but bloody hell am I stressed and angry about the state of the world.

The Fifth Risk collects some of the Vanity Fair articles written by Michael Lewis. They all touch on parts of US government agencies and what risks might befall the areas they looked after. It ranges from nuclear clean up to the weather. In all parts of it, Lewis talks to dedicated people who used to work in some of the more unknown but critically important agencies in the US government. However, as lots of them were political appointees, they are no longer working for the government.

And what is apparent throughout is that Donald Trump’s political appointees are all a bunch of hucksters and criminals, mostly interested in profit and conspiracy theories than governing. It’s really quite sickening and disturbing that your country’s government can just be hijacked so thoroughly. It makes me feel slightly better about our current government, in that it isn’t as encumbered by political appointments to such a huge degree. Just the sheer ignorance of these fucking people. The terror of transparency which makes me think they are closer to criminals, wanting to cover everything up so they don’t have to be held accountable. That they want to rip apart the entire useful infrastructure of a country, because they could make a fucking dollar. It’s disgusting. It’s a fucking tragedy. I hope one day all these fuckers go to jail.

On the flip side, it’s an amazing glimpse into people who are amazing, intelligent, thoughtful, insightful and civil servants. People who wage an unceasing battle against the catastrophic risks that face a civilisation of our complexity. People who are just ridiculously competent. They are the people in a disaster movie who are either telling the president something awful is going to happen or among the survivors figuring out how to survive.

AND OMG. The chapter on data. My god. MY GOD. Just the transformative nature of things you can do with data, arranged and presented in a way that is useful to people. For example, one company was able to get NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) data into cloud databases (everything from historic weather data to satellite imagery) and was able to give farmers a greater insight into everything about their farms. It’s amazing what can be done with data.

As well, the section on how to convince people of risk (in this case looking at why people didn’t shelter with Tornado warnings) was absolutely amazing. It makes me think of all the things you need to convince people of the right thing to do, it’s never enough to say here’s the data.

Anyway, the book was great, except for the fact that we are all going to die because stupid Donald Trump is going to cut funding to something critical and cause a nuclear power plant or something to melt down. Or some cascade failure where lots of things start to give up simultaneously. I feel just such a rampant and destructive scythe through critical national infrastructure through ignorance is going to have such huge ramifications in the US that he won’t even be in office when it happens (maybe if we’re lucky, he and a lot of his buddies will be in prison).

I would definitely give this a go, but I said “oh my fucking god” quite a bit while reading it. So you know, maybe wait until you don’t think the world is completely fucked before reading it, or it might push you over the edge.

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