The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Pirates may be to blame for the U.S. not being Metric

The Système International d'unités, also known as the Metric System, is the most widely-used system of measuring things in the known universe. Of the 7.57 billion people in the world, somewhere around 7.2 billion use SI. The laggards are almost all here in the United States.

Sarah Kaplan, writing for the Washington Post Science Alert today, blames English privateers:

In 1793, botanist and aristocrat Joseph Dombey set sail from Paris with two standards for the new "metric system": a rod that measured exactly a metre, and a copper cylinder called a "grave" that weighed precisely one kilogram.

He was journeying all the way across the Atlantic to meet Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson - a fellow fan of base-ten systems who, Dombey hoped, would help persuade Congress to go metric.

Then a storm rolled in, knocking Dombey's ship off course. The unlucky academic was washed into the Caribbean - and straight into the clutches of British pirates.

The brigands took Dombey hostage and looted his equipment. The luckless scientist died in prison shortly after his capture; his belongings were auctioned off to the highest bidders.

France sent a second emissary to promote the metric system. But by the time the replacement arrived, America had a new secretary of state, Edmund Randolph, who apparently didn't care much for measurement.

As the person who sent me this article said, perhaps the pirates just preferred saying "yarrrrd?"

But really, I put this into the same category of "American exceptionalism" that keeps us executing criminals, not getting passports, and thinking that we're somehow #1.

Maria hits Vieques head-on; Puerto Rico now getting full storm

Hurricane Maria's eye passed directly over Vieques earlier this morning and has now struck Puerto Rico proper:

Hurricane Maria roared ashore Wednesday as the strongest storm to strike Puerto Rico in more than 80 years, knocking out power to nearly the entire island and leaving frightened people huddled in buildings hoping to ride out withstand powerhouse winds that have already left death and devastation across the Caribbean.

The storm first slammed the coast near Yabucoa at 6:15 a.m. as a Category 4 hurricane with 250 km/h winds — the first Category 4 storm to directly strike the island since 1932. By midmorning, Maria had fully engulfed the 160-km-long island as winds snapped palm trees, peeled off rooftops, sent debris skidding across beaches and roads, and cut power to nearly the entire island.

In an unfortunate twist, some residents of Vieques had stocked up on critical supplies in advance of Irma only to donate what they had left to harder-hit areas such as Tortola and St. Thomas. Residents rushed to restock before deliveries to the island stopped and the power flickered off yet again.

There isn't much news coming out of Vieques yet, but having been there less than a year ago, I can't imagine that much of it remains standing. The shops and restaurants on Calle Flamboyan are (were?) less than 50 m from the beach, and barely 3 m above the Caribbean. I hope everyone got out OK.

More Caribbean islands slammed

This hurricane season may not break records for numbers or aggregate storm severity, but it will probably do so for destruction and cost. With St Martin and Barbuda all but destroyed, it looks like Vieques and Culebra are next:

Hurricane Maria went through an astonishingly quick transformation from a minimal hurricane to a Category 5 monster in less than 24 hours. As of 9 p.m. ET [Monday], Maria had maximum sustained winds of 250 km/h, and the island of Dominica was right in the path of the worst of the storm's winds. 

The National Hurricane Center has warned Maria is now a "potentially catastrophic" storm. This is the only Category 5 storm to strike Dominica on record, and may be among the fastest rates of intensification of any hurricane on record.

The National Weather Service office in San Juan issued a statement on Monday afternoon warning of the massive threat this storm poses to the island. The winds alone could cause locations to be "uninhabitable for weeks or months," the Weather Service stated, in addition to warning of a potentially deadly storm surge along the coast.

I visited Vieques in November, and I've visited St Martin twice before. I hope both islands recover quickly.

Note to Scott Adams and other climate-change deniers: The intensity and destruction of this year's hurricanes don't prove human-caused climate change. They are predicted consequences of human-caused climate change. By "predicted" I mean that, 20 or 30 years ago, climatologists warned this is exactly what would happen as the planet got warmer.

The second-most disgusting thing you'll read today

While not quite as viscerally grotesque as a 140-tonne fatberg, new details about the failures at Equifax that led to its massive data breach are still pretty disgusting:

Equifax has confirmed that attackers entered its system in mid-May through a web-application vulnerability that had a patch available in March. In other words, the credit-reporting giant had more than two months to take precautions that would have defended the personal data of 143 million people from being exposed. It didn't.

As the security community processes the news and scrutinizes Equifax's cybersecurity posture, numerous doubts have surfaced about the organization's competence as a data steward. The company took six weeks to notify the public after finding out about the breach. Even then, the site that Equifax set up in response to address questions and offer free credit monitoring was itself riddled with vulnerabilities. And as security journalist Brian Krebs first reported, a web portal for handling credit-report disputes from customers in Argentina used the embarrassingly inadequate credentials of "admin/admin." Equifax took the platform down on Tuesday. But observers say the ongoing discoveries increasingly paint a picture of negligence—especially in Equifax's failure to protect itself against a known flaw with a ready fix.

(Emphasis mine.)

Whenever people conservatives say that private industry is better at solving problems than government, I just think about some of the companies I've worked for, stir in crap like this, and laugh out loud.

Sit down, Don, you fat motherf----r

Jeet Heer grapples with the depressing reality that we'll never be completely free of Donald Trump during his lifetime:

For argument’s sake, let’s assume the best-case scenario: that we somehow manage to survive Trump’s first term and send him packing in 2020. At the moment, the odds of him winning reelection appear about equal to those of the Titanic triumphantly resurfacing under its own steam. His approval ratings are at historic lows, and he evinces no interest in finding a way to expand his base. The doting crowds he still draws at his campaign-style rallies convince him that he’s beholding—and beloved by—a majority of Americans, since those are the only moments he ever comes face-to-face with a citizen unpossessed of either a trust fund or a hedge fund.

So: What happens after Trump finds out that America has rejected him in favor of whatever crooked, terrorist-loving, jobs-destroying candidate the Democrats have decided to nominate? Nothing dignified. For starters, he’ll likely skip his successor’s “fake inauguration” and stage his own swearing-in, surrounded by what he will tout as the biggest crowd of onlookers in the history of onlooking. There is no scenario in which Trump will accept that he has lost fair and square; no matter how resounding his margin of defeat may be, he will begin his post-presidency by howling about massive voter fraud and political witch hunts and the failure of whatever attorney general has replaced Jeff Sessions to put his opponent behind bars. In his mind, Trump will still be president, and he will devote himself to a lifelong and evidence-free campaign to expose the conspiracy that illegally deposed him.

All Trump ever wanted to do was to play the president, a role that will be immeasurably easier once he’s actually out of office. Sarah Palin tried and failed to become a TV star after leaving office. Trump enacted that strategy in reverse. As ex-president, he will be perfectly positioned to return to his natural habitat, the simulacrum of “reality TV.”

He's right, sadly. And we still have 1,225 days until this term is over.

Predictable and sad

Credit reporting agency Equifax reported last week that thieves had made off with 143 million customer records:

According to a person familiar with the breach investigation, Equifax appears to have been targeted initially because the company keeps on file millions of active cards, belonging to people who pay $19.95 or more per month to have Equifax monitor their credit reports and alert them to potential fraud. The hack, which the company says took place in late July, put as many as 143 million consumers -- or half the U.S. population -- at risk.

The person, who requested anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation, said the web application the attackers used to breach Equifax’s corporate network granted access to both the credit card files and back-end systems storing the exhaustive data profiles on consumers. Those profiles include Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers and other sensitive information, Equifax said Thursday in a statement.

Criminals took advantage of a “U.S. website application vulnerability to gain access to certain files” from mid-May through July of this year, Atlanta-based Equifax said. The intruders also accessed dispute documents with personal identifying information for about 182,000 consumers. Credit card numbers for about 209,000 consumers were also accessed, the company said.

“You would expect these guys to have compartmentalized this data far enough away from a web server -- that there would not be any way to directly access it,” said Tim Crosby, senior consultant with security-assessment firm Spohn.

Knowing how large companies work, and knowing about the diffusion of responsibility principle, and having a healthy belief in the power of governments to correct for bad incentives, I can't say I'm surprised. Neither is the Atlantic's Ian Bogost:

There are reasons for the increased prevalence and severity of these breaches. More data is being collected and stored, for one, as more people use more connected services. Corporate cybersecurity policy is lax, for another, and sensitive data isn’t sufficiently protected. Websites and apps, which are demanded by consumers as much as they serve the interests of corporations, expose paths to data that should be better firewalled. Software development has become easy and popular, making security an afterthought, and software engineering has failed to adopt the attitude of civil service that might treat security as a first-order design problem. And hacking and data theft have risen in popularity and benefit, both as an illicit business affair and as a new kind of cold warfare.

Of course Equifax, as would be expected of a normally-functioning American corporation, bungled the response:

On Thursday night, I entered my last name and the last six digits of my Social Security number on the appropriate Equifax web page. (They had the gall to ask for this? Really? But I digress.) I received no “message indicating whether your personal information may have been impacted by this incident,” as the site promised. Instead, I was bounced to an offer for free credit monitoring, without a “yes,” “no” or “maybe” on the central question at hand.

By Friday morning, this had changed, and I got a “your personal information may have been impacted by this incident” notification. Progress. Except as my friend Justin Soffer pointed out on Twitter, you can enter a random name and number into the site and it will tell you the same thing. Indeed, I typed “Trump” and arbitrary numbers and got the same message.

So, yes, your worst suspicions are now confirmed. Equifax may actually make money on this breach. We would expect nothing less from the credit reporting industry, with which few of us would choose to do business but nearly everyone has to sooner or later.

The solution many people recommend is to freeze your credit reports—for a fee, multiplied by 4 to make sure you get all of the credit-reporting agencies. (Everyone has heard of Equifax, TransUnion, Experian...and Innovis. You've heard of Innovis, right? The one that doesn't offer a free annual report?)

Almost immediately, a team of lawyers including a former Georgia governor filed a class-action lawsuit. So have a group of plaintiffs in Oregon. We can also expect an action from the SEC relating to at least three Equifax managers selling their stock right before the announcement.

This situation is why we have government. The incentives for credit-reporting agencies run directly counter to the incentives of the hundreds of millions of people whose data they store. (You're not Equifax's customer; commercial enterprises are.) Without government regulation and higher liabilities for data breaches, this will just keep happening. But that's not "business-friendly," so the right-leaning American and British governments will dither for another few years until someone publishes the leaders' own data. Because their incentives are bad, too.

Replicating climate change denial papers

A new paper in the journal Theoretical and Applied Climatology tries to replicate the most-referenced papers in the 3% minority that find alternate explanations for human-caused global warming. Turns out, the deniers are still looking for their Galileo:

This new study was authored by Rasmus Benestad, myself (Dana Nuccitelli), Stephan Lewandowsky, Katharine Hayhoe, Hans Olav Hygen, Rob van Dorland, and John Cook. Benestad (who did the lion’s share of the work for this paper) created a tool using the R programming language to replicate the results and methods used in a number of frequently-referenced research papers that reject the expert consensus on human-caused global warming. In using this tool, we discovered some common themes among the contrarian research papers.

Cherry picking was the most common characteristic they shared. We found that many contrarian research papers omitted important contextual information or ignored key data that did not fit the research conclusions.

We found that the ‘curve fitting’ approach also used in the Humlum paper is another common theme in contrarian climate research. ‘Curve fitting’ describes taking several different variables, usually with regular cycles, and stretching them out until the combination fits a given curve (in this case, temperature data). It’s a practice I discuss in my book, about which mathematician John von Neumann once said, "With four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk."

This represents just a small sampling of the contrarian studies and flawed methodologies that we identified in our paper; we examined 38 papers in all. As we note, the same replication approach could be applied to papers that are consistent with the expert consensus on human-caused global warming, and undoubtedly some methodological errors would be uncovered. However, these types of flaws were the norm, not the exception, among the contrarian papers that we examined.

You can count the insurance industry among the groups that believe the science is settled. Insurers appear to have started looking at climate change as an inevitability, not a risk, which changes their models radically:

[F]lood insurance was not a lucrative business to begin with. Congress set up the National Flood Insurance Program in 1968 as it became clear that private companies couldn’t profitably provide coverage. Now, nearly half a century later, the program is—ahem—under water by $24.6 billion. As a result, there’s a push to move flood insurance toward the private market. That could mean less building in flood-prone areas, as they become effectively uninsurable thanks to sky-high rates. Says Morningstar’s Brett Horn: “Frankly, that’s not a bad outcome.”

Meanwhile, the second major hurricane of the season is heading for Florida...

Cheers for the humble disposal

A 1990s study by New York City showed that in-sink garbage disposals punch above their weight in environmental benefits. So why are they so rare in the city? Misconceptions, apparently:

The city installed more than 200 of the devices in select city apartments for a 21-month trial run; they then compared apartment units that had disposers with disposer-less units in the same building. Careful analyses from this study and others formed the basis of DEP’s report: the projected impact of citywide disposal legalization was minimal, and the Department estimated a $4 million savings in solid waste export costs.

Waste disposal is a thorny problem even in small towns, but for New York City, the trash pile continues to mount: The Department of Sanitation handles nearly 10,000 tons per day of waste generated by residents and nonprofit corporations, and the cost of disposal in Manhattan has grown from $300 million in 2005 to about $400 million today. Commercial establishments are serviced by private carting firms who also collect about 10,000 tons per day. All of that trash must be transported to landfills—often hundreds of miles outside the city—where it is converted into methane gas.

[L]andlords may still be reluctant to install the fixtures because of first-time installation costs (which can exceed $600), concerns about maintenance, or because they simply aren’t aware disposers are permitted to begin with. Perhaps the greatest block to in-sink disposal adoption, however, are our own misconceptions about them. Water and electricity use are minimal (according to InSinkerator, disposers account for less than 1 percent of a household’s daily water usage, and the total energy cost is about $0.50 per year); the devices don’t require much maintenance and often last a decade or more; clogged pipes are rare because scraps are entirely pulverized; almost everything can go down the disposer (veggies, fruit, meat, pizza), and newer models are nearly silent (and not deadly).

They also help your kitchen garbage smell better. But that's nothing compared to recapturing millions of tons of methane.

Challenge to the Arpaio pardon

It took less than a week for two separate entities to challenge President Trump's pardon of racist thug former Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff Joe Arpaio. Via Jennifer Rubin, the Federal judge who convicted Arpaio of criminal content has stopped short of vacating the conviction:

Instead she ordered Arpaio and the U.S. Department of Justice, which is prosecuting the case, to file briefs on why she should or shouldn't grant Arpaio's request.

Bolton has scheduled oral arguments on the matter for Oct. 4, the day before Arpaio was supposed to be sentenced.

There is case law that says a pardon implies an admission of guilt, and that will have to be argued in open court.

Rubin adds:

Meanwhile, Protect Democracy, an activist group seeking to thwart Trump’s violations of legal norms, and a group of lawyers have sent a letter to Raymond N. Hulser and John Dixon Keller of the Public Integrity Section, Criminal Division of the Justice Department, arguing that the pardon goes beyond constitutional limits.

Put simply, the argument is that the president cannot obviate the court’s powers to enforce its orders when the constitutional rights of others are at stake.

Lurking in the background is the potential for Trump to pardon associates involved in the probe of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials and the possible obstruction of justice that followed. The Arpaio pardon may well have been an attempt to signal to those officials and ex-officials that they can resist inquiries with the assurance that Trump will pardon them. (Recall Trump’s unprecedented remarks that Michael Flynn should hold out for a grant of immunity.) Using the pardon power to obstruct an investigation into his own possible wrongdoing would signal a constitutional crisis.

A crisis that the Republicans in Congress could resolve simply by, I don't know, doing their fucking jobs. But the Party of Lincoln is happy to allow the President to destroy his office for personal gain, as long as they get their tax cuts.

Makes you long for the more-ethical days of Caligula and Nero, doesn't it?

How wet is Houston?

Via WGN-TV, the fourth-largest city in the U.S. has received more rain in the last week than Chicago receives in an average year. 

Chicago's average annual precipitation is 910 mm. Since last Friday, Houston has gotten 1,070 mm. The wettest year in Houston history (1900) dumped 1,851 mm on it. So far this year, with 4 months left to go, Houston has gotten 1,798 mm. Of course, the odds are pretty good that the city will get another 53 mm of rain before December 31st.

We have no idea how bad the damage is yet. The entire Houston Chronicle website is about the flood. At least the rain has stopped for now—but officials worry about additional reservoir overflows and levee breaks.

We're just beginning to understand the magnitude of this disaster. And with key Federal posts, including FEMA Director, yet to be filled, President Trump is so out of his depth one can only hope that state and local governments can help.