The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

A short history of the Republican party's corruption

Atlantic staff writer George Packer doesn't mean the self-dealing and ballot stuffing the GOP has turned into an art form; he means the fundamental detachment and nihilism of the party in its current form:

The corruption I mean has less to do with individual perfidy than institutional depravity. It isn’t an occasional failure to uphold norms, but a consistent repudiation of them. It isn’t about dirty money so much as the pursuit and abuse of power—power as an end in itself, justifying almost any means. Political corruption usually trails financial scandals in its wake—the foam is scummy with self-dealing—but it’s far more dangerous than graft. There are legal remedies for Duncan Hunter, a representative from California, who will stand trial next year for using campaign funds to pay for family luxuries. But there’s no obvious remedy for what the state legislatures of Wisconsin and Michigan, following the example of North Carolina in 2016, are now doing.

The corruption of the Republican Party in the Trump era seemed to set in with breathtaking speed. In fact, it took more than a half century to reach the point where faced with a choice between democracy and power, the party chose the latter. Its leaders don’t see a dilemma—democratic principles turn out to be disposable tools, sometimes useful, sometimes inconvenient. The higher cause is conservatism, but the highest is power. After Wisconsin Democrats swept statewide offices last month, Robin Vos, speaker of the assembly, explained why Republicans would have to get rid of the old rules: “We are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in.”

During the Gingrich years, I repeated that the GOP didn't want to govern, it wanted to rule. Its behavior since then has only confirmed that analysis. And it will take another 30 years to get them out of power—if we can.

University of Wisconsin kills liberal education

Wisconsin, founded in a tradition of liberalism, is shifting its world-class university away from actually educating students into giving them vocational training instead:

In March 2018, the school’s administration offered a proposal to deal with the deficit. Cuts were necessary, the administration said. Liberal-arts staples such as English, philosophy, political science, and history would have to be eliminated. All told, the university planned to get rid of 13 majors. Not enough students were enrolled in them to make them worth the cost, the university argued. “We’re facing some changing enrollment behaviors,” Greg Summers, the provost and vice chancellor at Stevens Point, told me. “And students are far more cost-conscious than they used to be.”

Instead, administrators wanted to focus the school’s limited resources on the academic areas that students were flocking to and that the state’s economy could use straightaway—though they maintained that the liberal arts more generally would remain central to the curriculum, even if these specific majors were gone. “We remain committed to ensuring every student who graduates from UW-Stevens Point is thoroughly grounded in the liberal arts, as well as prepared for a successful career path,” Bernie Patterson, the institution’s chancellor, said in a message to the campus. The changes would reflect “a national move among students towards career pathways,” administrators argued. The proposal planned to add majors in chemical engineering, computer-information systems, conservation-law enforcement, finance, fire science, graphic design, management, and marketing. By focusing more on fields that led directly to careers, the school could better provide what businesses wanted—and students, in theory, would have an easier time finding jobs and career success.

Fierce backlash to the proposal from students, faculty, and alumni pushed the administration to reconsider its original plan. By the time the final proposal was released in mid-November 2018, it was less expansive, though still forceful. Six programs would be cut, including the history major. The university seemed to be eyeing degree programs with low numbers of graduates, and nationally, the number of graduates from bachelor’s programs in history has had the steepest decline of any major in recent years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

If the proposal, which is now in the middle of a public-comment period, is finalized, history classes will still be offered, but Willis said that cutting the major may ultimately lead to a reduction of staff and upper-level courses, such as the spring seminar on the Holocaust and its major’s emphasis on race and ethnicity. To Willis, this isn’t just an educational loss, but a societal one as well. “You never know when a historical metaphor is going to arise,” he quipped, pointing to the recent incident in Baraboo, Wisconsin, where high-school students gestured the Nazi salute in a photo.

Here's a tip: liberal education, especially in areas like English and history, is job training. Anyone can write code; many people can manage; actually figuring out how to run a business is different.

It's yet another example of the Dunning-Kruger effect: you need a liberal education to understand how beneficial—how useful—it is. And people like Scott Walker don't have those tools.

The good and bad in Chicago this morning

Two good stories and a bad one.

First, a good story: Chicago now has more breweries than any other city in the US:

The metro region has surged past several longtime stalwarts to become home to more breweries than any other city in the nation — 167 — according to statistics published this week by the Brewers Association.

Behind it are the metro areas that for years Chicago beer drinkers could only envy: Denver (158), Seattle (153) and San Diego (150).

In fifth and sixth places are two other large cities whose brewing scenes have surged in recent years: Los Angeles (146) and New York (141).

Seems like I have some work to do over the next few months.

Now the bad story: Eddie Lampert can't save Sears. But we knew that:

If you believe Edward Lampert has finally figured out how to revive Sears, then you probably still believe in Santa Claus. The hedge fund mogul who oversaw the 125-year-old retailer’s long slide into bankruptcy is dangling the prospect of an 11th-hour buyout, casting his proposal as an altruistic effort to save the remaining 50,000 jobs at Sears.

My advice to those workers: Don’t expect a Christmas miracle.

First of all, there’s less to Lampert’s offer than initial appearances suggest. It’s been touted as a $4.6 billion bid to buy Sears out of bankruptcy, where it landed in October after losing $11 billion since 2011. But $1.8 billion of the offer would take the form of debt forgiveness by Lampert-affiliated entities, Sears’ largest lenders with about $2.6 billion in company debt. About $950 million would be cash, provided Lampert can find a lender willing to front the money. (As has been the pattern in recent years, Lampert isn’t putting more of his own cash into Sears.) Another $1 billion or so represents Sears liabilities to be assumed by a new company Lampert would form to acquire company assets including 500 stores, inventories, and the Kenmore and DieHard brands.

Oh, and Lampert also wants releases from claims related to his pre-bankruptcy transactions with Sears. Other creditors have commissioned an investigation into whether Lampert, Sears’ controlling shareholder since 2005 and CEO from 2013 until October’s Chapter 11 filing, gave himself favorable treatment in such deals as the spinoff of Lands End and the sale of Sears real estate to a newly formed company where he has a controlling stake.

And finally, another good story: the CTA will start modernizing the stretch of the El that goes by my neighborhood this fall, completing it just in time for the renovation of the Uptown Theater. Should all of this come together, it means I bought my apartment at exactly the right time:

The Red and Purple Line project will rebuild stations, bridges and track along a century-old corridor between Lawrence and Bryn Mawr avenues on the Red Line, the agency’s busiest line, CTA officials said. The construction also will include a controversial bypass that will take Brown Line trains above Red and Purple Line trains north of the busy Belmont station, CTA officials said.

Construction is expected to start in the fall of 2019, with the entire project to be completed in 2025, CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said.

Chase said that by the end of 2019, the CTA expects to start advance work to prepare for later phases of the project. This work will include building temporary stations to replace the Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn and Bryn Mawr stations, which will be rebuilt. The CTA also will do track work to prepare for further repairs. Exact timing for the work will depend on the contractor.

Chase said the bypass work will start in 2020. The agency will start building new stations from Lawrence to Bryn Mawr in about two or three years, she said.

That will make a huge difference in Uptown, where the 110-year-old El stations look like they're about to collapse on themselves.

Detecting Alzheimer's in a novel

Researchers used the Iris Murdoch's last novel to quantify how Alzheimer's first signs show up in language:

As [neurologist Peter] Garrard explains, a patient’s vocabulary becomes restricted, and they use fewer words that are specific labels and more words that are general labels. For example, it’s not incorrect to call a golden retriever an “animal,” though it is less accurate than calling it a retriever or even a dog. Alzheimer’s patients would be far more likely to call a retriever a “dog” or an “animal” than “retriever” or “Fred.” In addition, Garrard adds, the words Alzheimer’s patients lose tend to appear less frequently in everyday English than words they keep — an abstract noun like “metamorphosis” might be replaced by “change” or “go.”

Researchers also found the use of specific words decreases and the noun-to-verb ratio changes as more “low image” verbs (be, come, do, get, give, go, have) and indefinite nouns (thing, something, anything, nothing) are used in place of their more unusual brethren. The use of the passive voice falls off markedly as well. People also use more pauses, Garrard says, as “they fish around for words.”

For his analysis of Murdoch, Garrard used a program called Concordance to count word tokens and types in samples of text from three of her novels: her first published effort, Under the Net; a mid-career highlight, The Sea, The Sea, which won the Booker prize in 1978; and her final effort, Jackson’s Dilemma. He found that Murdoch’s vocabulary was significantly reduced in her last book — “it had become very generic,” he says — as compared to the samples from her two earlier books.

Apparently there's a movie about Iris Murdoch too.

Two Illinois anniversaries

First, today is the bicentennial of Illinois becoming a state, which involved a deal to steal Chicago from Wisconsin:

If Illinoisans had played by the rules to get statehood, Chicagoans would be cheeseheads. By all rights, the Wisconsin border should have been set at the southern tip of Lake Michigan when Illinois was admitted into the union, 200 years ago Monday.

That would have made a 60-mile strip of what’s now northern Illinois a part of southern Wisconsin. Stripped of the smokestacks of Chicago’s factories, Illinois’ landscape would have been dominated by grain elevators and dairy barns. But that didn’t happen.

The fix was in, even as the state of Illinois was conceived.

It's a good story. Today is also the 75th anniversary of Pizzeria Uno opening in Chicago, which introduced deep-dish pizza to the masses:

Pizza had been around the city’s Italian cafes for decades.  It was served in tiny wedges, and mainly used as an appetizer.  Even on a full pie the crust was wafer-thin.

The pizza at Pizzeria Uno was going to be different—cooked in a deep dish, with a thick crust and heaps of cheese.  Who came up with this innovative style?  Riccardo?  Sewell?  Their chef, Rudy Malnati?  The debate goes on.

So on a wartime Friday evening in December, Pizzeria Uno opened with little fanfare.  Business was slow at first.  Gradually, Chicago-style pizza caught on.  By 1955, people were lining up outside in the cold, waiting to get in.

Longtime readers know that despite my Chicagoan heritage, I prefer New York-style big slices that you have to drain before eating. Preferrably bought from a window on 3rd Avenue around 4am.

George H.W. Bush, 1924-2018

The 41st president of the United States died last night at the age of 94. President Bill Clinton, who succeeded Bush in 1993, remembers his friend:

No words of mine or others can better reveal the heart of who he was than those he wrote himself. He was an honorable, gracious and decent man who believed in the United States, our Constitution, our institutions and our shared future. And he believed in his duty to defend and strengthen them, in victory and defeat. He also had a natural humanity, always hoping with all his heart that others’ journeys would include some of the joy that his family, his service and his adventures gave him.

His friendship has been one of the great gifts of my life. From Indonesia to Houston, from the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast to Kennebunkport — where just a few months ago we shared our last visit, as he was surrounded by his family but clearly missing Barbara — I cherished every opportunity I had to learn and laugh with him. I just loved him.

We should all give thanks for George H.W. Bush’s long, good life and honor it by searching, as he always did, for the most American way forward.

I voted against Bush in my first election, and helped defeat him in the 1992 campaign. Back then, we opposed people in the other party; we didn't hate them. Bush embodied that decency. He will be missed.

Me and Julio

Yesterday was my [redacted] high school reunion. We started with a tour of the building, which has become a modern office park since we graduated:

The glass atrium there is new, as of 2008. The structure back to the left is the Center for the Performing Arts, which featured proudly in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

I didn't get a picture of the Michelin-starred student food court, but this, this I had to snap:

So, at some point I'll post about Illinois school-funding policies and why one of the richest school districts in the world has 20 or so exercise bikes, each of which costs as much as feeding a child lunch every school day for three years...but this is not that post.

It was great seeing some of my classmates and walking around the old school. Also, shout out to the server at Northbrook's Landmark Inn for dealing with about 100 old people who didn't remember their own drinks.

 

You say it's your birthday?

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' White Album:

There’s something about The White Album that invites listeners to mess around with it. Joan Didion stole its title for her 1979 essay collection, an elegy for the dreams of 1960s California. The producer Danger Mouse chopped it to pieces and recombined the fragments with vocals from Jay-Z’s The Black Album to create his 2004 mash-up The Grey Album. The jam band Phish covered all 30 songs on stage on Halloween night, 1994. Charles Manson, notoriously, had his own theories. Even the title has been rewritten: The Beatles called it The Beatles but their fans had other ideas.

The new reissue defamiliarises the album yet again, with 27 demos, 50 outtakes, and a thorough digital reconstruction by Giles Martin, the son of Beatles producer George Martin. The White Album is the only record by the most analysed group in the history of popular music that still retains considerable mystery, because there’s just so much of it. Whether or not you consider it the best Beatles album (I do), it’s certainly the most Beatles album.

Over the years we’ve learned almost everything there is to know about the circumstances of its creation. We know that due to various rows, sulks and walkouts, the first stage of the band’s disintegration, all four Beatles appear on fewer than half the songs. We know about Yoko Ono’s contentious presence, Ringo’s huffy absence from Back in the USSR, John’s contempt for Paul’s “granny music shit”, and so on. We know that they were less than a year away from the last time that they all stood in a studio together, although in the newly released demos we can also hear that there was still plenty of fun to be had, despite those fissures. Even at the time, I imagine, one could hear pop’s quintessential gang of mates splintering into four individuals, and their musical fusions unravelling into discrete genre exercises. Listening to it is like watching an explosion in slow motion.

I'm about to put it on. But I'll skip "Revolution 9."

The White House Correspondents Dinner

This year the WHCA won't have a comedian or the president at its annual dinner. Instead, historian Ron Chernow will speak. Can't think why:

Go back a few minutes to hear the whole thing. I'm highlighting that passage because, don't forget, two days later Osama bin Laden was dead—because two hours earlier, President Obama gave the final order to have him killed.

Leadership.

Au revoir au Grand K

The International Bureau of Weights and Measures voted earlier today to ditch the platinum-iridium prototype kilogram in favor of a value of mass based on Planck's constant. The Post explains:

Since the 19th century, scientists have based their definition of the fundamental unit of mass on a physical object — a shining platinum iridium cylinder stored in a locked vault in the bowels of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) in Sevres, France. A kilogram was equal to the heft of this aging hunk of metal, and this cylinder, by definition, weighed exactly a kilogram. If the cylinder changed, even a little bit, then the entire global system of measurement had to change, too.

With Friday’s vote, scientists redefined the kilogram for the 21st century by tying it to a fundamental feature of the universe — a small, strange figure from quantum physics known as Planck’s constant, which describes the smallest possible unit of energy.

In 1875, the signing of the Treaty of the Metre made the system official. Two platinum and iridium prototypes — a meter-length bar and a kilogram-mass cylinder — were forged to serve as the standard units for the whole world. The BIPM distributed copies of each prototype to the signatory nations; the century-old U.S. national kilogram still sits in a glass case in a locked room down the hall from Pratt’s lab.

But the kilogram prototype, known as “Le Grand K,” was made by humans and is subject to all our limitations. It is inaccessible — the safe containing the cylinder can be opened only by three custodians carrying three separate keys, an event that has happened fewer than a dozen times in the object’s 139-year history. And it is inconsistent — when Le Grand K was examined in the 1980s, it weighed several micrograms less than it was supposed to. This meant that anyone who made products based on the standards had to reissue their weights. Manufacturers were furious. Lawmakers were called. Metrologists, people who study measurements, were accused of incompetence.

The article doesn't say what the Bureau will do with the kilogram prototype.