The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

So much rain!

The Tribune reports that today ends Chicago's second-wettest spring ever, the wettest May ever, and the only second month in recorded history (out of 1,770 months) to have 21 days of precipitation. This might become the new normal: 9 of the last 10 Mays have had above-average precipitation.

Lake Michigan, the inland sea ten blocks from where I'm sitting, has near-record water levels:

Lake Ontario, downstream, has swelled by almost a meter in the last two months to all-time record levels:

So not only has all this rain has caused massive flooding in rivers throughout the Midwest, but the high lake levels prevent rivers from draining and have accelerated wetland erosion along the shore.

Another thing: all this fresh water drains out through the St Lawrence Seaway right into the North Atlantic. Combined with meltwater coming off Greenland, that surge of lighter, fresher water is slowing the thermohaline circulation that brings warmth to Northern Europe. So as most of the world gets warmer, Europe could get a lot colder in the next century.

Said any climate scientist ever interviewed this past year, "We told you so 30 years ago."

Direct economic effects of climate on Illinois

As Chicago finishes the wettest May in history, Bloomberg points out that all the rain has caused serious problems with Illinois agriculture:

Rabobank is predicting an unprecedented number of unplanted acres of corn, the most widely grown American crop. A Bloomberg survey of 10 traders and analysts indicates growers could file insurance claims for about 6 million corn acres they haven’t been able to sow, almost double the record in 2013.

Corn futures surged more than 20% to a three-year high over the past few weeks on fears farmers wouldn’t be able to get seeds in the ground ahead of crop-insurance deadlines. So-called prevented plant claims reached 3.6 million acres in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency.

Field conditions deteriorated over the past few weeks, indicating significant corn acreage loss was a risk, according to Gro Intelligence, a New York-based analysis firm that uses satellites among other data sources. Areas with the biggest risk of acreage loss were in central Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, and the region around the borders of South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska.

Of course, no one knows for sure how much land will remain unsuitable for planting. But simple physics (higher air temperatures lead to more moisture in the air which leads to more precipitation) underpins a lot of climate-change thinking.

Meanwhile, the Administration plans to form a committee to obfuscate climate science. Because of course it will. How's that helping farmers?

How many lawsuits is Eddie Lampert party to?

Two made the news this week. First, Lampert has sued Sears (which he owns) for not conveying property that his investment firm bought from the doomed retailer:

Lampert's Transform is accusing the Sears estate, a bankrupt shell entity that is winding down under court supervision, of multiple wrongs including breaking the agreement by holding on to the chain's headquarters in Illinois. The estate is also intentionally delaying payments to vendors and trying to shift $166 million in accounts payable costs, according to the Transform complaint filed on Saturday.

The allegations mirror those made in court filings from Transform earlier this year. The Sears estate also sued Lampert, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and others last month, claiming they wrongly transferred $2 billion of company assets beyond the reach of creditors in the years leading up to the retailer’s bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, in another case, Lampert filed court documents in which he threatens not to pay $43m in severance payments he promised to make:

Lampert also denied that he is responsible for making some payments to creditors he says Sears Holdings is trying to force him to pay, according to the filing. Sears Holdings is the bankrupt remnants of the old Sears. It exists only to settle claims against it involving its few remaining assets.

Lampert had previously agreed to pay the severance to workers who lost their jobs before and during Sears' bankruptcy. Creditors objected to Sears paying severance to people laid off before the bankruptcy, so those workers never received an exit package.

Lampert's attorneys told the bankruptcy court that Lampert and his hedge fund ESL were the best owners to help workers who lost their jobs in various rounds of store closings.

But in the latest court documents, ESL said it wouldn't make the severance payments because Sears didn't give the hedge fund all of the assets it spelled out in ESL and Lampert's agreement to buy Sears. That included the amount of store inventory originally promised by Sears, as well as the company's headquarters in suburban Chicago.

Wow, he really wants to win Worst CEO of the Century, doesn't he? And remember, Lampert never cared about Sears as a going entity; he has always and only wanted the land Sears owns. What a schmuck.

Anti-intellectualism lives on both sides

Williams College Biology Professor Luana Maroja sounds the alarm as she sees students challenging long-established science on political grounds:

The trouble began when we discussed the notion of heritability as it applies to human intelligence.

I asked students to think about the limitations of the data, which do not control for environmental differences, and explained that the raw numbers say nothing about whether observed differences are indeed “inborn”—that is, genetic.

There is, of course, a long history of charlatans who have cited dubious “science” as proof that certain racial and ethnic groups are genetically superior to others. My approach has been to teach students how to see through those efforts, by explaining how scientists understand heritability today, and by discussing how to interpret intelligence data—and how not to.

In class, though, some students argued instead that it is impossible to measure IQ in the first place, that IQ tests were invented to ostracize minority groups, or that IQ is not heritable at all. None of these arguments is true. In fact, IQ can certainly be measured, and it has some predictive value. While the score may not reflect satisfaction in life, it does correlate with academic success. And while IQ is very highly influenced by environmental differences, it also has a substantial heritable component; about 50 percent of the variation in measured intelligence among individuals in a population is based on variation in their genes. Even so, some students, without any evidence, started to deny the existence of heritability as a biological phenomenon.

Similar biological denialism exists about nearly any observed difference between human groups, including those between males and females. Unfortunately, students push back against these phenomena not by using scientific arguments, but by employing an a priori moral commitment to equality, anti-racism, and anti-sexism. They resort to denialism to protect themselves from having to confront a worldview they reject—that certain differences between groups may be based partly on biology.

She concludes that this has a chilling effect on education and research. It's pretty scary.

To coin a phrase

Today's Daily Parker flash of inspiration will memorialize my update to an obsolete proverb.

Instead of "a stopped watch is right twice a day," substitute "a dead mobile gets no bad texts."

On second thought, they're not orthogonal. But in my defense, I was thinking of the president at the time.

Busy weekend

Just a few things in the news:

And hey, summer begins in three days.

Very wet May

Yesterday Chicago set a few weather records: wettest Memorial Day ever recorded, tied for most days in May with measurable prediction (18), tied for most days in May that have had more than 7.6 mm of precipitation (10), and up to the 3rd wettest month of May (186 mm). And we have more rain predicted tonight.

Warmer air holds more moisture. The atmosphere worldwide is warmer. QED.

No one wants McMansions

People who thought moving to far suburbs made economic sense in the 1990s and 2000s can't seem to sell their ugly, too-large houses:

"For most of the 1990s, if you looked at the geographic center of jobs in the Chicago area, it was moving steadily northwest, out from the city toward Schaumburg," homebuilding consultant Tracy Cross says. Like the corporate campuses that popped up in that era, the houses were often built big.

A generation later, tastes for both have faded: Corporations have shifted their offices to downtown Chicago in unprecedented numbers, and once-stylish suburban luxury homes are derided as McMansions. Affluent people now show a well-documented preference for living in or near the city, a preference that's fueling the vigor in the high-rise condo market downtown as well as in Bucktown and in Wilmette, among other places.

Phil Chiricotti felt the double-barreled blast when he sold his home in Burr Ridge. Chiricotti, who was a retirement-planning executive, built the four-bedroom, 6,800-square-foot home on 77th Street in 2002, "when Tuscan-style homes were what everybody was doing," he says. The house has arches, columns and balconies made of stone.

"I had murals painted in that house, I had exotic Romanesque stenciling done," Chiricotti says. "Everyone told me my taste was spectacular. But the operating costs to live in that house were $25,000 a year." He put the house on the market in 2009, asking just under $2.7 million, and sold it almost six years later at a real estate auction for $1.47 million.

("Exotic Romanesque stenciling?" Yes, that would qualify as spectacular taste, just not good taste.)

Schaumburg, Ill., is about 50 km northwest of the Loop in western Cook and norther DuPage Counties. It spreads west from I-290 along a spiderweb of ugly strip-mall-encrusted stroads, and contains a giant mall and a huge IKEA. The village adopted, without irony, "Progress Through Thoughtful Planning" as its motto when it incorporated in 1956, and then thoughtfully planned winding residential roads without sidewalks that appeal to people who drive to their mailboxes.

I've joked before that "Schaumburg" is German for "Why would anyone live in this town." (It actually translates to "foam town," which amuses me.) Schaumburg epitomizes Suburbistan to me: a place that tries to take the best parts of rural and urban life and, missing the point entirely, creates something entirely horrific instead. A place where no one really wants to live.

These sad people paid millions for houses so ugly they don't so much rebuke good design as represent the antithesis of design itself, in suburbs so soulless just writing about them makes me want to clap on one and three. So this news fills me with a feeling described by another German word: Schadenfreude.

What. The. Fuck?

Burger King has decided to embrace the suck:

Sir, this was a Burger King commercial. Part of a partnership with the nonprofit Mental Health America — as well as an unsubtle dig at the McDonald’s Happy Meal — the nearly two-minute “short film” promotes a limited-time, select-city product called “Real Meals,” which correspond to a customer’s “real” mood: Blue, Salty, Pissed, DGAF and YAAAS. In place of information about where to seek help if you’re experiencing feelings of depression, which would usually appear at the end of a public-service announcement, title cards explain: “No one is happy all the time. And that’s O.K.,” followed by an image of each of the Real Meals, jarring pops of color after the gloomy video. (No matter which mood you announce to the cashier taking your order, or to the touch screen that has replaced her, each box contains the same thing: a Whopper, fries and a drink.)

Insulting both the customer and the product might seem like a bad strategy for selling stuff. But it’s consonant with a broader shift in advertising, fueled by social media, whereby brands have felt compelled to veer dramatically off-script and imitate the most attention-seeking people online: Netflix recently ranted on Twitterabout the sexist connotations of the term “chick flicks”; inspired by a negative comparison, Vita Coco threatened to send one hater a jar of urine; Steak-umm has cultivated a bizarre, meme-fluent Twitter presence that breaks the fourth wall to discuss the difficulty of social media marketing and refers to the company’s core product as “frozen beef sheets.” All this antiadvertising has succeeded in doing is making our world feel yet more corporatized. Even our friends’ cheerful recommendations for miracle skin-care products or life-changing apps can sound as if there’s something in it for them. Everywhere is an Arby’s, sir.

“Life sucks — you might as well eat Burger King” is a reasonable attitude for an individual to espouse in this situation. ... [But] Burger King is not a person; life sucks at least in part because of Burger King.

I hope this trend stops soon. Of course, having studied marketing in a data-oriented school, I can tell you that no one really knows if marketing works. So Burger King and the other brands taking these bizarre turns in marketing will continue to do so because they won't have any data telling them not to.

I keep thinking of Robert Heinlein's novel Friday, in which Heinlein's own expy says this: "A dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot."

In other news...Therexit!

Burger King's brand implosion aside, other, more important news came out in the last couple of days:

  • This morning, UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced she would step down on June 7th, having lost the confidence of the right-wing crazies holding her majority together. The likely outcome of this will be Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is actually less popular than May, forcing a general election through incompetence by the August bank holiday.
  • The heads of NOAA and NASA have raised the alarm that the proposed 24 GHz frequency band proposed for 5G wireless will mask the existing 23.8 GHz frequency of passive microwave energy which weather forecasting systems need to actually forecast weather.
  • Since February 2017, when he took his first of over a hundred golf trips as president, Donald Trump has cost us more than $100 million playing golf.
  • San Francisco's KPIX-TV Broadcast Operations Manager Eliot Curtis apparently gave himself an LSD trip while repairing a 1960s-era synthesizer.

Must be Friday.