The Fifth Risk Book Review

The Fifth Risk Book Review

A Different Take on the Government

Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker, The Big Shortand Moneyball, delves into the workings of government bureaucracy in his new book, The Fifth Risk. Lewis manages to remove political ideology from his narrative, instead focusing on the work performed by civil servants within the Department of Commerce (DOC), Department of Energy (DOE), NASA, and other government institutions. I will readily admit that I’m unconvinced about the importance of the government, though Lewis manages to persuade even his most skeptical readers of the value we derive from government investments and programs.

Roughly seventy percent of the US government’s employees are in some way responsible for the safety and security of the American people. Lewis hones in on the DOE’s job of maintaining and protecting our nuclear weapons. Moreover, the DOE works to prevent terrorists from developing their own nuclear arsenals. Lewis suggests that it’s of critical importance to properly understand, staff, and manage these government projects, otherwise we increase the likelihood of large scale disasters. The titular risk Lewis wants us to consider to better prevent such disasters is that of project management.

Why the DOE is So Important

United States government investments in nuclear weapons during the Cold War enabled our country to amass an inventory of thousands of nuclear warheads. This nuclear stockpile, though, came at a price. Two-thirds of the plutonium used in the United States’ nuclear weapons was created at the Hanford Nuclear Site in Washington State. With Cold War tensions cooling, the government allowed the reactors to cool as well. Though the war has ended and the reactors have been decommissioned, it will take Hanford at least “a century and a hundred billion dollars” to clear away the nuclear waste.

Nuclear cleanup projects like the one in Hanford only account for some of the DOE’s portfolio of responsibilities. Lewis interviewed Tarak Shah, the former Chief of Staff to the Under Secretary for Science and Energy at the Department of Energy, about a terrorist attack carried out against our energy grid.

“Late one night, just southeast of San Jose, at Pacific Gas and Electric’s Metcalf substation, a well-informed sniper, using a .30-caliber rifle, had taken out seventeen transformers. Someone had also cut the cables that enabled communication to and from the substation… ‘We actually don’t have a transformer reserve… Our electric-grid assets are growing vulnerable.'” (66)

Forty percent of our hydroelectric power comes from the grid mentioned above. Investments in its continued protection are incredibly important as we grow increasingly reliant on electrical power.

Dismantling Our Core Institutions

In examining the operations of various government departments, Lewis shows his readers that many civil servants have gone unrecognized while protecting us from the threats of natural and man-made disasters. They’ve funded technological developments that have served as the backbones of many of our biggest industries. How about the weather reports we take for granted (and sometimes ignore?) These are the results of sustained government research projects and investments in improved technology.  Lewis makes it clear that the criticism and outright effort to privatize much of the government is a recipe for devastating consequences.

Barry Myers is the CEO of AccuWeather, a company that packages up the government’s weather reports and sells them for profit. The presidential administration picked Myers to run the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Lewis warns that Myers has a financial incentive to prevent the government’s distribution of weather information. Only paying customers of AccuWeather will receive weather forecasts or warnings. This withholding of information will cost lives, especially as catastrophic weather events are a more common occurrence.

I recommend The Fifth Risk to government supporters and skeptics alike. Lewis, known for unravelling difficult subject matter and eloquently explaining it, offers a convincing argument for the continued funding of our government and its many projects. Whether you agree or disagree, please share your opinion in the comment section, or contact me directly.

The Fifth Risk Book ReviewThe Fifth Risk Book Review

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The Rise of China and Fall of Democracy

Fall of Democracy

The Latest Attack

Bloomberg Businessweek just published a stunning story detailing the Chinese state-sponsored espionage committed against nearly 30 U.S. companies. In short, the People’s Liberation Army compromised the supply chain of Supermicro, a company that is effectively the “Microsoft” of hardware. Supermicro designs and distributes high performance servers to its list of global clients, which include the likes of Amazon, Apple, and the U.S. Department of Defense. The Chinese spies implanted small, barely detectable microchips in these servers, which created entry points for hackers to view, modify, or delete data. This hack has terrifying implications, as Supermicro exposed U.S. government secrets and U.S. intellectual property to malicious actors.

Escalating Tensions

China has been in the news a lot lately due in large part to the ongoing trade tensions with the U.S. U.S. companies had taken the cheap Chinese labor for granted as they continued to outsource manufacturing operations to the Eastern nation. While this practice increased corporate profits, the increase came at the expense of U.S. jobs. Moreover, China has emerged as a superpower rivaling the U.S. It’s economy rose sharply as a result of voluminous number of exports. The Chinese government invested heavily in technology and has been effective in locking U.S. technology companies from access to its consumers. We will see this rift between nations widen as competition for global supremacy intensifies.

Autocracy as an Alternative

Xi Jinping, the President of China, has won the support of China’s National People’s Congress to remove term limits from the Chinese presidency. He now has a lifetime tenure to advance his vision for the country he controls unchecked. To better ensure dissent among the population is muted, China has implemented a sophisticated means of censorship throughout its internet, technology applications, and news outlets. The U.S. has struggled to penetrate the Chinese market, as applications like WhatsApp, Facebook, and Google have been banned in favor of the Chinese sponsored WeChat, Tencent, and Baidu. The Chinese government’s control over the more than one billion inhabitants provides it with invaluable streams of data. These data points can be used to tighten the country’s grip on its people and further power its hypergrowth.

Metastasis

China has demonstrated that democracy is not the only form of government that propels an emerging market to a global superpower. We are now seeing other countries install charismatic strongmen as their heads of state. Russia, Turkey, and Venezuela all resemble China in their autocratic rule of their populations. These countries continue to further insulate themselves from democratic nations, resulting in sanctions, cyber warfare, and sharpened rhetoric. Unfortunately, with a viable alternative to democracy, it’s unlikely that these tensions between nations will subside. In fact, we can expect more countries to shift further away from democracy. The peace between superpowers we have witnessed following the end of World War II is ebbing away. Centralization of power, state censorship, and a strengthening economy had been three of the main factors that led to the German population’s acceptance of war. We can only hope that we don’t need to prepare for another one.

If you want to discuss China’s rise further, leave a comment in the comment section or contact me.
Daisy Luther Prepper Interview

3 Reasons Why Facebook is More Powerful than Governments

Facebook is More Powerful than Governments

Introduction

Facebook’s stated mission is to, “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” For the month of September 2017, Facebook averaged 1.37 billion daily active users; nearly a fifth of the world’s population logs on each day. Facebook has unquestionably achieved its mission, as an enormous collective of users has united in its willingness to publish and share information. Over the thirteen years of its existence, Facebook has created the most advanced engine of data collection and distribution in the world. It has so much data, in fact, that it can systematically break down democracy in order to advance a factional agenda. Facebook, with its unprecedented means of organization and information dissemination, has the power to dissolve nation states and usher in a new system of governance.

1. Data Collection

Facebook does not charge its users money to use its namesake platform, Instagram, Facebook Messenger, or WhatsApp. These “free” services are able to operate due to the data their user bases provide them with. In its readily accessible Data Policy, Facebook details what information it collects and how it uses the information, though the document doesn’t outline the full scale of its data accumulation and processing operations. Facebook believes that the exchange of its services for data is fair, but many of its users are blissfully ignorant of the ways in which their data is being captured and utilized. Russia weaponized Facebook’s platform during the buildup to the United States presidential election by propagating false or partisan marketing campaigns across users’ news feeds. While the effect of these campaigns is still unknown, the threat they posed to our democratic system is undeniable.

2. Data Structuring

Facebook has to structure its petabytes of data in order to make sense of its users’ relationships, interests, activities, and other associations. This structure has taken the form of a social graph. In 2007, donning a Northface fleece and Adidas sandals, Mark Zuckerberg addressed an audience from the stage at the Web 2.0 Summit. An early iteration of the statesman he is today, the visibly stiff Zuckerberg shared his vision of making Facebook’s social graph accessible to developers, which would let them develop applications on the Facebook platform. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t coin the term “social graph,” but he and his company have created the largest one to date. The social graph is a mapping of connections between actors, actions, and objects.  As a one-dimensional example, if I login to Facebook and “like” a post my friend made, then I am the actor, my act of liking a post is the action, and my friend’s post is the object. The social graph is a reflection of the relationships, or “edges,” between people, the content they post, their interests, and their behaviors. As Facebook’s user base grew, its social graph did so exponentially.

3. Algorithmic Micro-Targeting

Facebook has capitalized on its data stores through the development and deployment of advanced algorithms designed for “micro-targeting” users of interest. The Share Foundation, an organization advocating for open and decentralized communication, analyzed Facebook’s many patents. The foundation discovered numerous ways in which Facebook leverages its data to distribute ads to its users. Facebook targets you based on your interests, your social connections, the events you express interests in, your search history, etc.

From Democracy to Oligarchy

A democracy is a system of government in which each member of an entire population can influence the future of the nation he inhabits. Implementations of democracy may differ from nation to nation, but they all share the same principle of “majority rule.” Democracies can only function in nations with informed populations, as they must understand the costs and benefits of a course of action before they make decisions. We rely on the media to communicate how policies and laws will affect us, which underscores the importance of unbiased and unfiltered media outlets. However, not all media syndicates create and share news stories as a public service. Rather, some syndicates spread propaganda across airwaves and television channels in hopes of convincing the public to adopt their slanted viewpoints. Populations need counterbalances to partisan arguments, so they can arrive at their own conclusions. Facebook’s hold on its users subjects them to a bespoke, censored, omni-channel stream of news with the power to change both sentiments and stances. Facebook, therefore, can be tooled to become the most effective system of propaganda distribution in the world.

Prepare Yourself

Facebook and the companies under its umbrella have organized a network of over a billion people distributed across the globe. It knows far more about its users than many would have ever thought possible. In fact, the United States government clandestinely requests Facebook to provide it with information about specific users. Yes, Facebook may know more about you than your government. In its pursuit of growth, Facebook can tighten its control of users by shaping their feelings, forming their viewpoints, dictating their purchases, and collecting fees from their transactions. Facebook’s platform spans across territorial, cultural, political, and economic divisions and has formed a shared designation among its users: a source of data. We have seen the power of Facebook’s infrastructure on relatively small scales, but we cannot expect the growth and exploitation of this infrastructure to stall. Facebook may eventually remove the “country” attribute from its profile screen, as it will have become irrelevant. We will all then be united under Facebook’s control.

Want to chat more about Facebook? Interested in other technology blog postsContact me or leave a comment.

Facebook is More Powerful than Governments