The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Why doesn't the AP want me to give them money?

I spent way more time than I should have this morning trying to set up an API key for the Associated Press data tools. Their online form to sign up created a general customer-service ticket, which promptly got closed with an instruction to...go to the online sign-up form. They also had a phone number, which turned out to have nothing to do with sales. And I've now sent two emails a week apart to their "digital sales" office, with crickets in response.

The New York Times had an online setup that took about five minutes, and I'm already getting stuff using Postman. Nice.

Meanwhile:

Finally, I've got a note on my calendar to check out the Karen's Diner pop-up in Wrigleyville next month. Because who doesn't want to be abused by servers?

Taking a break from heads-down coding

I spent the morning going over an API for standards and style, which will result in an uncomfortably large commit before I leave the office today. I prefer smaller, more focused commits, but this kind of polishing task makes small code changes all over the place, and touches lots of files.

So while I have my (late) lunch, I'm taking a break to read some news:

Finally, the Securities and Exchange Commission has fined the Mormon Church $5m for failing to disclose its holdings as required by law. As the Church has some $32 billion in holdings worldwide, that $5m fine will sure sting.

Another step in the slow decline of an empire

The United States once had the best universities in the world. Maybe we still do, to an extent. Most empires, in their primes, have them. But in every culture, some people simply don't (or can't) understand the benefits of learning for its own sake. In the waning days of empire, when politics drifts farther from governing and closer to self-dealing, people who do understand why we need great universities nevertheless see political advantage in pretending we don't.

In the last week I've seen three unrelated articles about this symptom of American decline, from three different perspectives, that make me thing the United States has another century or so before we no longer have the tools or the will to remain the shining beacon on the hill we have always fancied ourselves.

First, Tom Nichols provides a snapshot of one university where the students exercise so much control over the curriculum that they have shut themselves off from real learning:

Unless you follow academic politics, you might have missed the recent controversy at Hamline University, a small private college in St. Paul, Minnesota. The short version is that a professor named Erika López Prater showed students in her global-art-history class a 14th-century painting depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Aware that many Muslims regard such images as sacrilege, she warned ahead of time that she was going to show the picture and offered to excuse any student who did not want to view it.

Professor López Prater’s contract has not been renewed, and she will not be returning to the classroom. The university strenuously denies that she was fired. Of course, colleges let adjuncts go all the time, often reluctantly. But this, to me, seems like something more.

The “rights” of students were not jeopardized, and no curriculum owes a “debt” to any student’s “traditions, beliefs, and views.” (Indeed, if you don’t want your traditions, beliefs, or views challenged, then don’t come to a university, at least not to study anything in the humanities or the social sciences.) Miller’s view, it seems, is that academic freedom really only means as much freedom as your most sensitive students can stand, an irresponsible position that puts the university, the classroom, and the careers of scholars in the hands of students who are inexperienced in the subject matter, new to academic life, and, often, still in the throes of adolescence.

The consumer-driven view of academia weakens institutions from within. Which works just fine if you're an ethnic entrepreneur who wants to squelch critical thinking and has the power to destroy an entire state's university system from without:

New College is undoubtedly a liberal enclave: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis carried Sarasota County by over 20 points in November, and two months earlier a slate of MAGA candidates won a local school board election with support from the Proud Boys. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that the school would find itself in the crosshairs of DeSantis’s ongoing neo-McCarthyite crusade. On Friday morning, DeSantis announced six appointees to the New School board of trustees. Of the six, the three most eye-catching are Christopher Rufo, who’s risen to notoriety as one of the best-known voices inveighing against “critical race theory” and stoking back-in-vogue incendiary anti-LGBTQ rhetoric; Charles Kesler, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, a far-right think tank; and Matthew Spalding, a professor of government at Michigan’s Hillsdale College, a deeply conservative private Christian college that both Rufo and DeSantis’s chief of staff explicitly held up as a model for the Florida school.

There’s no better avatar than Rufo for DeSantis’s ambitions to make Florida “where woke goes to die.” In his demagogic campaign to “lay siege to the universities,” Rufo has relentlessly pursued a series of “educational gag orders” in a number of states that have sought to forbid professors from discussing certain topics related to race, gender, and sexuality. In October, he also appeared to celebrate a targeted campaign against one such professor: When a University of Chicago undergrad-cum-conservative-influencer unleashed a wave of rape and death threats on an adjunct professor who was set to teach a winter course on “The Problem of Whiteness,” Rufo praised the student’s “excellent work” after he took to Twitter to brag about getting the class canceled. (In reality, the class was postponed to allow for time to institute safety precautions.) That student is now the national chairman of “Students for Ye,” a far-right youth organization dedicated to a Kanye West presidency.

So what is driving these appointments? “You’re attacking such a small school with these kids who are really brilliant, and which has a high proportion of students who have faced backlash just to who they are,” [New College alumnus Derek] Black said. “For almost everybody I’ve ever known who went to New College, it was [a place where] you can figure out who you are, you can share that with your peers, and you can find a group of people who are going to make you a space where you can explore that and feel comfortable with it. I have a lot of trouble seeing this announcement as anything other than feeling uncomfortable with students being able to just feel like they don’t have to uphold any sort of traditional identity.”

Republican Florida governor Ron DeSantis—who very well could get sworn in as President two years and five days from now—gets a win no matter how the New College battle goes. Either he destroys the college completely, making it that much less likely to find effective critical thought in Florida, or New College survives, but as a huge target for attacks on "wokeness."

Finally, we have an op-ed in this morning's Times from historian Daniel Bessner, sounding the alarm about the decline of humanities study because people don't see its value:

[O]nly 27 percent of those who received a Ph.D. in history in 2017 were employed as tenure track professors four years later. The work of historians has been “de-professionalized,” and people like myself, who have tenure track jobs, will be increasingly rare in coming years. This is true for all academic fields, not just history. As Adrianna Kezar, Tom DePaola and Daniel T. Scott note in their book “The Gig Academy,” about 70 percent of all college professors work off the tenure track. The majority of these professors make less than $3,500 per course, according to a 2020 report by the American Federation of Teachers. Jobs that used to allow professors to live middle-class lives now barely enable them to keep their heads above water.

What is to blame? In the past generation the American university has undergone a drastic transformation. To reduce costs, university administrators have dramatically reduced tenure. And as the protections of tenure have withered away, the size of nonteaching university staffs have exploded. Between 1976 and 2018, “full-time administrators and other professionals employed by those institutions increased by 164 percent and 452 percent, respectively,” according to a 2021 paper on the topic. Professors have been sacrificed on the altar of vice deans.

At the same time, in an effort to fund research that might redound to their financial benefit and to demonstrate their pragmatic value to politicians and to the public, universities have emphasized science, technology, engineering and math at the expense of the humanities. As the American Academy of Arts and Sciences reported, citing data from 2019, “spending for humanities research equaled 0.7 percent of the amount dedicated to STEM R.&D.”

Entire areas of our shared history will never be known because no one will receive a living wage to uncover and study them. It’s implausible to expect scholars with insecure jobs to offer bold and innovative claims about history when they can easily be fired for doing so. Instead, history will be studied increasingly by the wealthy, which is to say those able to work without pay. It’s easy to see how this could lead American historical scholarship to adopt a pro-status-quo bias. In today’s world, if you don’t have access to elite networks, financial resources or both, it just doesn’t make sense to pursue a career in history. In the future, history won’t just be written by the victors; it’ll also be written by the well-to-do.

As a historian, Bessner knows that this has happened before, and knows what happened afterward.

The dark ages from the fall of the Western Roman Empire until the early medieval period saw Europe slip from the center of literature, art, and architecture, into an intellectual backwater ridiculed in the great universities of the Arab world. It took a thousand years for Europe to recover. Fortunately, the rest of the world moved on. But Europeans endured centuries of intellectual stagnation and religious repression until the hidden repositories of knowledge finally peeked out of the darkness in the 11th and 12th centuries.

The founders of the United States hoped they could create a country with all the best parts of Rome and none of the worst parts. I only wish they'd had more accurate histories of the Roman Empire so they could have seen how valuable learning for its own sake actually was.

Second day of sun, fading fast

What a delight to wake up for the second day in a row and see the sun. After 13 consecutive days of blah, even the -11°C cold that encouraged Cassie and me to get her to day care at a trot didn't bother me too much.

Unfortunately, the weather forecast says a blizzard will (probably) hit us next weekend, so I guess I'll have time to read all of these stories sitting on the couch with my dog:

Finally, one of my college music professors died this month. Herbert Deutsch co-created the Moog synthesizer and taught at Hofstra University for 40-plus years.

Where did SBF come from?

Theodore Schleifer examines the intellectual and ethical upbringing of Sam Bankman-Fried, the 30-year-old indicted yesterday for perpetrating one of the biggest frauds in history:

Of all the potentially unanswerable riddles underpinning the Sam Bankman-Fried saga—why did Sequoia invest in a mop-topped kid who played video games during a diligence call; were Alameda and FTX ever really separate?—perhaps the most vexing is how the mastermind of this whole legal and ethical imbroglio was the offspring of two beloved legal scholars who were obsessed with ethics, in an effective-altruist Petri dish focused on analytical rigor, civic-mindedness and, crucially, consequences. How could a family so committed to doing the greatest good for the greatest number end up depriving so many people of so much happiness—and then see their son get arrested?

The optics are complicated for Joe Bankman and Barbara Fried, who flew to The Bahamas amid the collapse of FTX and have remained there to counsel their son, almost as if he were a therapy patient or a legal client. Meanwhile, people on The Farm have been gossiping about how neither parent has any courses at Stanford next year: Joe canceled the one class he was slated to teach over the winter semester, and Barbara is listed as an emerita professor. (She has written that she “hopes” to make a return to teaching in the future.)

Sam has gone out of way to absolve his parents of any culpability in his financial misdeeds, telling Andrew Ross Sorkin at last month’s Dealbook conference that they “bore no responsibility” for the collapse of FTX. “Anyone close to me, including my parents and employees and co-workers who fought with the company to push forward, they were hurt by this,” he said. “I feel really grateful for the support my parents are still giving me throughout all of this.”

And yet the truth is that both parents, whether they bear responsibility or not, are deep in the barrel with Sam. As Reuters has reported, official property records show that Joe Bankman and Barbara Fried were the named owners of a $16.4 million beachside “vacation home” in Old Fort Bay, part of a broader real estate portfolio owned by FTX and senior executives totalling hundreds of millions of dollars. “They may have stayed there while working with the company sometime over the last year,” Sam told Sorkin, though he denied knowing any details about the $300 million worth of real estate that FTX and his parents bought in the Bahamas. (Joe and Barbara have said they’ve been working to return the property to the company for some time.)

I mean, all the ethical rigor in the world won't help if your son is a sociopath.

The last post of the summer

Meteorological summer ends in just a few hours here in Chicago. Pity; it's been a decent one (for us; not so much for the Western US). I have a couple of things to read this afternoon while waiting for endless test sessions to complete on my work laptop:

And via Bruce Schneier, a group of local Chicago high schoolers will never give you up and never let you down.

Short rant about student loans

I posted this last night on Facebook:

It's so interesting to me that we're having a (manufactured) political argument about canceling $10k in student debt while all the countries we compete with are horrified that people even have to pay $10k to go to university. Even privatization-happy Brits flipped some constituencies to Labour in the last general election because the Tories raised university fees to £9,250 ($10,900) per year. The outrage isn't that we forgave a token amount of Federally-held debt. The outrage is that the richest country in the history of the world doesn't ensure its entire population gets the same education as the average teenager in Belgium.

One of my more rabid Republican friends did not like that, but I'll spare you his response. Instead, I'll note Paul Krugman's take on the topic:

The right is inveighing against debt relief on moral grounds. “If you take out a loan, you pay it back. Period,” tweeted the House Judiciary G.O.P. On which planet? America has had regularized bankruptcy procedures, which take debt off the books, since the 19th century; the idea has been to give individuals and businesses with crippling debts a second chance.

But, you may argue, student borrowers weren’t struggling to cope with a pandemic. True. But many student borrowers were suckered in by the misleading marketing of for-profit colleges; millions ran up debts but never received a degree. Millions more went into debt only to graduate into a labor market devastated by the global financial crisis, a market that took many years to recover.

So don’t think of this as a random giveaway. Many though not all of those who will benefit from debt forgiveness are, in fact, victims of circumstances beyond their control.

Of course, that's an argument based on facts and evidence, so it won't sway anyone on the far right. I just wish they'd find something else to do than get outraged over every single thing the administration does.

The extremism of libertarians

The town of Croydon, N.H., had a serious problem with its libertarians earlier this year, when extremists took advantage of low voter turnout to cut the school budget in half:

On a snowy Saturday this past March, the 2022 meeting began in the two-century-old town hall, where the walls are adorned with an 1876 American flag made by the “women of Croydon” and instructions to reset the furnace to 53 degrees before leaving.

Residents approved the town budget in the morning. Then they turned in the afternoon to the proposed $1.7 million school budget, which covers the colonial-era schoolhouse (kindergarten to fourth grade) and the cost of sending older students to nearby schools of their choice, public or private.

This is when Mr. Underwood, 60, stood up and threw a sucker punch to the body politic.

Calling the proposed budget a “ransom,” he moved to cut it by more than half — to $800,000. He argued that taxes for education had climbed while student achievement had not, and that based in part on the much lower tuition for some local private schools, about $10,000 for each of the town’s 80 or so students was sufficient — though well short of, say, the nearly $18,000 that public schools in nearby Newport charged for pupils from Croydon.

The town rallied and managed to reverse the budget cuts at a special meeting in May. But wow, this is just like the libertarians up the way who tried (and failed) to co-exist with bears rather than pay for a wildlife warden.

Another detail: as the Times points out, Underwood—the guy who argued school activities aren't necessary—"starred on the tennis team, ran track, played intramural sports and joined extracurricular activities in math, creative writing, radio and student government." So libertarianism works really well if you get a leg up on everyone else before kicking the ladder away.

Student debt relief won't go to the rich

But instead I'm reading this note (sub.req.) by Paul Krugman, pointing out that college degrees no longer have anything to do with wealth or income:

[M]uch of the backlash to proposals for student debt relief is based on a false premise: the belief that Americans who have gone to college are, in general, members of the economic elite.

The falsity of this proposition is obvious for those who were exploited by predatory for-profit institutions that encouraged them to go into debt to get more or less worthless credentials. The same applies to those who took on educational debt but never managed to get a degree — not a small group. In fact, around 40 percent of student loan borrowers never finish their education.

What is widely understood is that America has become a far more unequal society over the past 40 years or so. The nature of rising inequality, however, isn’t as broadly known. I keep encountering seemingly well-informed people who believe that we’re mainly looking at a widening gap between the college-educated and everyone else.

Americans at the 95th percentile don’t consider themselves rich, because they aren’t, surely as compared with C.E.O.s, hedge funders and so on. Nonetheless, they have seen substantial gains. On the other hand, the typical college graduate — who is, remember, someone who made it through and received an accredited degree — hasn’t.

So here’s how I see it: Much of the student debt weighing down millions of Americans can be attributed to false promises.

Some of these promises were scams pure and simple; think Trump University. Even those who weren’t outright cheated, however, were pulled in by elite messaging assuring them that a college degree was a ticket to financial success. Too many didn’t realize that their life circumstances might make it impossible to finish their education — it’s hard for comfortable, upper-middle-class Americans to realize how difficult staying in school can be for young people from poorer families with unstable incomes. Many of those who did manage to finish found that the financial rewards were far smaller than they expected.

And all too many of those who fell victim to these false promises ended up saddled with large debts.

Canceling large swaths of educational debt will do more to help the bottom 95% than most of the legislation proposed this session. The rich don't need it; in fact, many wealthy people have no college debt at all. They're the ones who hold the notes, when you get down to it. So here's hoping President Biden moves forward on the proposal.

Winter in Chicago

The temperature bottomed out at -14.4°C around 1:30 am, and has climbed ever so slowly since then to -0.3°:

Will we get above freezing? The forecast says yes, any moment now. But the sun will set in about 5 minutes. Anyway, a guy can dream, right?

Meanwhile, Chicago's teachers and schools have agreed to let the kids back tomorrow, even as the mayor herself tested positive for Covid. And the Art Institute's workforce has formed a union, which will operate under AFSCME.

And that's not all:

And finally, just as no one could have predicted that more guns leads to more gun violence, the same people could not have predicted that the NFT craze would lead to NFT fraud.