The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Make no small plans

Chicagoan Bob Lempa had a simple question for Peggy Baker on Tuesday:

WGN-TV reporter Shannon Halligan tracked down the story:

The man behind the message is Bob Lempa, who made big Valentine's Day plans this year. He wanted to write a proposal message so big his girlfriend Peggy Baker could see it from her 37th floor window in the Blue Cross Blue Shield building. The couple have been together for nine years since they met at a party for a mutual friend, and he was ready to pop the question.

"I had been by Maggie Daley Park a number of times just getting the feel of where I could do it, how big it would have to be, because Peggy’s on the 37th floor so I knew it had to be big to be seen," Lempa said.

But when the big day rolled around, there was one problem: no snow. So he decided to wait until Tuesday, when there was finally enough on the ground for him to clear away and write his message. It wasn’t an easy surprise to pull off. The letters were 45 feet tall and 31 feet wide, and took a little over six hours to make.

Halligan reports Baker said yes. Gawd, I hope so.

Here's the message in a larger view from my office yesterday:

Nicely done, Bob. And good luck to you both!

An end to civil forfeiture?

The US Supreme Court ruled today that the 8th Amendment rule against "excessive fines" applies to the states as well as to the Federal Government:

The decision is a victory for an Indiana man whose luxury SUV was seized after he pleaded guilty to selling heroin. It is also a blow to state and local governments, for whom fines and forfeitures have become an important source of funds.

In an opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court seemed to regard the basic question before it as an easy one. The justices explained that the “historical and logical case for concluding that” the ban on excessive fines applies to the states through the 14th Amendment – which bars states from depriving anyone “of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” – is “overwhelming.”

States and municipalities have relied on civil forfeiture laws for revenue over the past three decades or so, with ridiculous and horrifying results. Today's decision will go a long way to curbing those abuses.

Speedbirds in the news yesterday

From a longtime reader in the UK comes the story of British Airways (callsign: "Speedbird") celebrating the airline's 100th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of the Boeing 747 by painting one in its 1964-to-1974 BOAC livery:

Large crowds turned out at Heathrow on Monday to welcome the plane, decked out in livery not seen for four decades.

The plane will keep flying in its retro BOAC design until 2023, British Airways said in a statement.

Tuesday's flight retraces the first route a Boeing 747 took in BOAC colors.

Also yesterday, a Virgin Atlantic B787 caught an unusual jet stream over the Atlantic that propelled it to a record-breaking ground speed:

A Virgin Atlantic flight from Los Angeles to London peaked at a whopping 1,289 km/h Monday evening 10,500 m over Pennsylvania. “[N]ever ever seen this kind of tailwind in my life as a commercial pilot,” tweeted Peter James, a jet captain.

It appears that’s a record for the Boeing 787-9 twin jet, which in the past has flown at speeds up to 1,249 km/h. The ordinary cruising speed of a Dreamliner is 903 km/h, with a maximum propulsion of 944 km/h. Any speed gained on top of that is thanks to Mother Nature’s helpful boost.

Although the plane didn’t remain in the “jet streak” — the zone of maximum wind embedded within the jet stream — for long, it still arrived 48 minutes early. And you might notice something suspect about the 1,289 km/h reading — it’s above the speed of sound (1,234 km/h). However, whether air travel breaks the sound barrier is dependent on its airspeed — not its ground speed.

Vroom.

Whither Chicago's middle class?

The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) has published a study of Chicago income by census tract, and has found a disturbing trend:

Chicago’s middle class, once the backbone of the city, is declining so swiftly that it’s almost gone, and a set of maps from a local university lays that reality bare.

The dynamic stands to affect nearly everything about Chicago going forward, from politics to schools to who will live here.

“It raises a lot of questions as to what kind of city it will be,” said Janet Smith, co-director of the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which compiled the maps that document Chicago’s shrinking middle class — and an increasingly polarized city — over the past five decades.

UIC’s maps show that fully half of the city was middle income in 1970, including large swaths on every side of town. Today, just 16 percent of the city’s 797 census tracts are considered middle income. Those middle income areas are confined mostly to the corners of the city, and to thin strips between areas of wealth and poverty.

Lutton goes on to examine the economic, cultural, and other trends that are driving this change.

Why can't he build anything?

Paul Krugman says the president actually doesn't want to:

Why isn’t Trump building anything? Surely he’s exactly the kind of politician likely to suffer from an edifice complex, a desire to see his name on big projects. Furthermore, during the 2016 campaign he didn’t just promise a wall, he also promised a major rebuilding of America’s infrastructure.

But month after month of inaction followed his inauguration. A year ago he again promised “the biggest and boldest infrastructure investment in American history.” Again, nothing happened.

In short, money isn’t why we aren’t building infrastructure. The real obstacle is that Trump, his officials, his party or all of the above don’t actually want the kind of public investment America needs. Build they won’t.

In the case of Trump administration officials, what’s striking about the various infrastructure “plans” they’ve offered — they’re more like vague sketches — is that they involve very little direct public investment. Instead, they’re schemes that would purportedly use public funds as a sweetener to induce large amounts of private investment. Why not just build stuff? Partly, perhaps, to hold down the headline cost. But such schemes would also amount to a backdoor way to privatize public assets, while possibly generating little new investment.

And while a real infrastructure plan would gain a lot of support from Democrats, an exercise in crony capitalism pretending to be about infrastructure wouldn’t.

To sum up: The Republican Party wants to rule, not to govern; and infrastructure benefits no one they care about.

Two stories of North American irrationality

First, William Giraldi, writing in Medium, proclaims "[e]verything you need to know about the mess that is America in 2019 can be explained by our deepening national belief that Bigfoot is real:"

Bigfooters believe they are questing for bipedal apes in California, but they are really questing for their own lost boyhoods, their Boy Scout days, those formative experiences in the woodlands of fancy and faith, and for the thrill of certain belief as it was before the adult world broke in to bludgeon it.

Remember that preadolescent frisson, the dread-tinged excitement of knowing, absolutely knowing, that monsters were real, not the myths, folklores, and allegories that adulthood insists they are? If Wordsworth laments adulthood’s injection of sobriety and rationality into the childhood sublime, Bigfooters aren’t having it. They’ve found a means of resurrecting that boyish wonder, of plugging back into the child’s reciprocal, imaginative bond with nature. If it comes at the cost of evidence — to say nothing of dignity — since when have children ever bothered with evidence? These scientists and their mocking, scoffing facts are a drag. What did John Keats says about Isaac Newton’s achievements with light? “He destroyed the poetry of a rainbow by reducing it to a prism.”

In concert with their wish to plug back into their boyhoods, these men, loose in the woods, are searching for the approval and acceptance of other men. No optional male group endeavor, none, is exempt from this law, one that hearkens back to the mastodon hunt, during which a male proved himself worthy of the clan and thus worthy of the protection and resources the clan controlled.

Which isn’t to say that time in the woods is idyllic. Believer and journalist John Green, the grandfather of Sasquatchia, once wrote, “The average sasquatch hunter is so pig-headed that two of them together are pretty sure to have a falling out before long… People who will go hunting for an animal that is rejected by the world of science and almost everybody else are bound to be people who don’t pay much attention to any opinion but their own, and expect not only to have an opinion but to act on it.”

Remember Jonathan Swift: “Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired.”

Our second story comes from the CBC via IFLScience, showing that our Canadian neighbors have shown a disturbing lack of immunity to our American anti-intellectualism.

It seems a Vancouver dad worried so much about the (totally discredited) myth that vaccines cause autism that he didn't get his kids vaccinated. Flash forward 10 years and add a family trip to Vietnam, and one of his kids became Patient Zero in a British Columbia measles outbreak:

[Emmanuel] Bilodeau believes one of his three sons contracted measles during a family trip to Vietnam earlier this year and that it has since spread at the French-language schools his children attend.

Bilodeau said he brought his sons to a travel clinic on Broadway Street before their trip where they received other vaccinations, but not for measles.

It was on the plane ride home that his 11-year-old son began experiencing symptoms, including fever.

Measles. In 2019. In Canada, which has perhaps one of the three or four most advanced health-care systems the world has ever seen.

So, go ahead and believe in 3-meter-tall ape-people wandering the forests of Oregon, but try to apply some logic and rationality to life-or-death decisions like whether to prevent people from getting a disease so easy to prevent we had almost eradicated it before the beginning of this century.

Labour's Love Lost

Seven Labour MPs quit the party today, accusing the party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, of anti-Semitism and mishandling Brexit:

At a morning news conference, Parliament member Luciana Berger said she had become “embarrassed” and “ashamed” of the Labour Party, which she said was “institutionally anti-Semitic.” Berger, who is Jewish, added she was leaving behind a culture of “bullying, bigotry and intimidation.”

Chris Leslie, another breakaway lawmaker, said the party had been “hijacked by the machine politics of the hard left” and that Labour’s “betrayal on Europe was visible for all to see.” While many Labour party members support a second referendum on whether to leave the European Union, Corbyn has been cold to the idea of a do-over.

Leslie said, however, that “our differences go far deeper than Brexit” — revealing the depth of antipathy to the 69-year-old Corbyn, whose self-described “radical” agenda for Britain energized new and young voters in the last election, but has alienated the center of the party.

“The last three years have confirmed how irresponsible it would be to allow this leader of the opposition to take the office of prime minister of the United Kingdom. Many people still in the Labour Party will privately admit this to be true,” Leslie said.

The Guardian, generally a Labour-supporting newspaper, has more:

In the short term the group has one central task – to convince 29 more disgruntled MPs from any party colour to join their group. That would give them official third party status – overtaking the SNP and access not just to more short money but also a prized guaranteed slot for the group’s leader at every PMQs, replacing the SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford.

The group will meet later this week to decide how to structure their group – which could involve a process for selecting a leader. Much of the future will depend how many more MPs join them.

At the moment, all members of the new grouping are supporters of a second referendum. Yet sources suggested this would not necessarily be a prerequisite forever. Members of the group would hardly admit it in public, but there may come a point in the next few months when it becomes apparent that that campaign has failed and the group’s aims for the next phase of Brexit become more flexible.

This really is an interesting period for the West. Fifty years from now it will be a lot clearer whether the 2010s represented the beginning of a realignment in Western politics, or just a scream of frustration from people who feel left out. Right now, though, it feels a little chaotic, and it's a gift to those, like the Russian and Chinese governments, who have always wanted to discredit our political philosophy.

When did consciousness evolve?

New thinking says longer ago than you might think—with implications throughout the animal kingdom:

If [Attention Schema Theory (AST)] is correct, 300 million years of reptilian, avian, and mammalian evolution have allowed the self-model and the social model to evolve in tandem, each influencing the other. We understand other people by projecting ourselves onto them. But we also understand ourselves by considering the way other people might see us. Data from my own lab suggests that the cortical networks in the human brain that allow us to attribute consciousness to others overlap extensively with the networks that construct our own sense of consciousness.

Maybe partly because of language and culture, humans have a hair-trigger tendency to attribute consciousness to everything around us. We attribute consciousness to characters in a story, puppets and dolls, storms, rivers, empty spaces, ghosts and gods. Justin Barrett called it the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device, or HADD. One speculation is that it’s better to be safe than sorry. If the wind rustles the grass and you misinterpret it as a lion, no harm done. But if you fail to detect an actual lion, you’re taken out of the gene pool. To me, however, the HADD goes way beyond detecting predators. It’s a consequence of our hyper-social nature. Evolution turned up the amplitude on our tendency to model others and now we’re supremely attuned to each other’s mind states. It gives us our adaptive edge. The inevitable side effect is the detection of false positives, or ghosts.

And so the evolutionary story brings us up to date, to human consciousness—something we ascribe to ourselves, to others, and to a rich spirit world of ghosts and gods in the empty spaces around us. The AST covers a lot of ground, from simple nervous systems to simulations of self and others. It provides a general framework for understanding consciousness, its many adaptive uses, and its gradual and continuing evolution.

The author makes a strong argument that many vertebrates, including canids and corvids, have consciousness as we understand it, just so they can make sense of the world. It's an intriguing theory.

Note, also, that both the article and I use "theory" in its scientific sense: a hypotheses repeatedly tested and not yet falsified.