The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

The little Federal agency you've never heard of

The Bureau of Geographic Names has a multi-year plan to rid the US of racist place names:

Usually, the public eye is far from the BGN, a member of the class of government bodies whose work you could go a lifetime without thinking about, even though it’s all around you. But the board now finds itself in the middle of the fiery national debate over racism and language. In recent years, the BGN has spent more of its time reconsidering offensive names than doing anything else, but the process typically takes months and is reactive by design, with names considered case by case upon request.

A different, faster process is possible. In November, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold that post, issued an order designed to wipe any mentions of “Squaw,” probably the most frequently used slur in place names, off the map. She issued a second order that will establish an advisory committee to identify other offensive names that might be proactively changed under a similar mechanism. In 2020, when Haaland was a member of Congress, she introduced a bill that would also create such a committee, and although Green and Senator Elizabeth Warren reintroduced it this year, the bill is stuck in limbo.

But even the expedited process will take time. Removing all uses of “Squaw” is expected to take about a year, and that’s the simpler of the two orders. One challenge is that determining what’s offensive isn’t always straightforward. Names including a slur are easy, but others—such as Jew Valley, Oregon, named after a group of Jewish homesteaders—are less clear-cut. Another is that any feature whose name is removed needs a new one, ideally one that is locally meaningful and that will age better than whatever it’s replacing. The BGN is designed with process in mind, not justice or equity.

Weather Now, my demo application, makes heavy use of BGN data. Most of the US places in its gazetteer have BGN identifiers so I can update them automatically.

Sigh of relief

This is welcome news:

Justice Stephen Breyer will step down from the Supreme Court at the end of the current term, according to people familiar with his thinking.

Breyer is one of the three remaining liberal justices, and his decision to retire after more than 27 years on the court allows President Joe Biden to appoint a successor who could serve for several decades and, in the short term, maintain the current 6-3 split between conservative and liberal justices.

At 83, Breyer is the court's oldest member. Liberal activists have urged him for months to retire while Democrats hold both the White House and the Senate. They contended that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stayed too long despite her history of health problems and should have stepped down during the Obama administration.

Of course, we'll be sad to see Breyer retire. But it looks likely that we won't have another opportunity to appoint a non-partisan justice for many years.

Now if only Thomas and Gorsuch would retire...

Three notable recent deaths

In no particular order:

  • Dale Clevenger played French horn for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1966 to 2013. He was 81.
  • Sheldon Silver went to jail for taking bribes while New York Assembly Speaker. He was 77.
  • Lisa Goddard made climate predictions that came true, to the horror of everyone who denies anthropogenic climate change. She was 55.

In a tangential story, the New Yorker profiles author Kim Stanley Robinson, who has written several novels about climate change. (Robinson hasn't died, though; don't worry.)

Thanks again, Bruce!

Former Illinois governor Bruce Rauner (R, of course) famously stopped almost all discretionary spending in the state during his term in office by continually vetoing state budgets passed by the Democratically-controlled legislature. His term overlapped with a project to rebuild 11 railroad bridges on the North Side of Chicago, and which included a companion project, partially necessitated by the track reconfigurations required to replace the bridges, to rebuild the Ravenswood Metra station serving Uptown and Lincoln Square.

That's my Metra station.

The project started in 2013 when the railroad opened two temporary platforms north of Lawrence Ave. and removed the inadequate but semi-permanent platforms south of the street. The old platforms had a couple of small shelters; the "temporary" platforms did not.

Nevertheless, the outbound (West-side) platform opened in late 2016, more or less on time. They couldn't open it until the west-side bridges were up, and the outbound track rebuilt, so we all completely understood the delay. The inbound (east-side) platform had the same issue, so when the bridge project finished in 2017, we could all imagine a day just a few months later when we'd have a shiny new platform with end-to-end shelters, a heated waiting area, and other amenities that most other Metra riders get for free.

But because Rauner stopped paying Illinois' portion of the station rebuild, work stopped on the inbound platform until 2020, and when it resumed, it didn't exactly go at full speed. We are now nine years into the project. This morning, I had to wait for fifteen minutes in blowing snow, all because Bruce Rauner (a billionaire) didn't want to release state funds for a project to which the Federal government contributed 75% of its costs:

Rauner now lives in Florida. I guess he got tired of his neighbors—yes, even his rich Winnetka neighbors—telling him to do his fucking job.

If I ever encounter a Djinn, I might wish for all the anti-tax billionaire politicians to spend a year with the consequences of their decisions. In Rauner's case, that would look like having to take underfunded public transit everywhere, with occasional videos of European transit systems to see what it could be.

Really good Russia analysis

Russian-American journalist Julia Ioffe recently interviewed Russia expert Fiona Hill for Puck. It's worth a read:

Do you think Putin’s going to invade Ukraine? And if so, what form would it take?

I do. I think it’s really the form that it’s going to take. There is still a chance that he won’t, right? And we have to really keep on going with diplomacy. But Putin has run a risk now. He said he’s going to do all of these things. He said he’s not going to invade Ukraine, but so what? They’ve said that the last time and the last time and the time before that. So we don’t buy that one. But he can’t be caught out as bluffing. If we call his bluff, he has to do something, because otherwise none of his threats are credible. He has to do something, and they’ve said “military-technical response.” They’ve been shooting down satellites. There was this cyberattack. They’re showing that they could do an awful lot more. 

The thing is, he’s got no one to stop him at home. He’s got no press resistance at all, no opposition. He’s got everybody running around with their heads cut off abroad. So unless there is a unified pushback, he can do things in the manner of his choosing. I know there’s a lot of East Europeans and a lot of Ukrainians saying, Oh, this is just a bluff, he keeps doing this. But you know, the more they say that also, the more likely it is he’ll do something to teach them a lesson.

People I talk to in Moscow, as well as some in the U.S. government, say that some of this is a product of Putin’s COVID isolation for the last two years; that he barely sees anyone because to see him, you have to quarantine for two weeks; that he’s not getting good information. Do you think that’s plausible?

I think it could be, honestly. I really do think that there’s something strange going on there. He seems more emotional, more focused. Maybe he’s been sitting there, stewing the whole time about this. There’s a good case to be made for that because it’s very strange. There are many people, myself and others, who have followed Putin for his entire time in the presidency and we’re all sort of wondering whether there’s something else going on. Is something wrong? Has this made him confront his mortality? There are other changes around him. Lots of people did get sick around him. Does that make him feel that time might be ticking, in ways we would never have credited?

Those two have more expertise about Russia than exists in Foggy Bottom right now. The whole interview is worth reading.

Happy 2nd Covidversary! And 5G...

Yes, today is the second anniversary of the first confirmed Covid-19 case popping up in Washington State. But that's not what this post is about.

No, instead, I want to highlight two articles about why airlines really do not like 5G mobile networks—at least, not the way the US implemented them:

“TO BE BLUNT,” reads a statement from ten U.S. airline executives, “the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt.” That was in a letter sent to the White House, the FAA and the FCC. “Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly,” it continues, “the vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded.”

There’s perhaps an element of hysteria and hyperbole in play here, as you’d maybe expect. But there’s also a big problem, and unless things are quickly worked out, the potential does exist for massive flight disruptions.

Most of the issue revolves around a cockpit device known as a radar altimeter (sometimes called a “radio altimeter”). Unlike the plane’s primary altimeters, which measure height above a particular barometric pressure level, the radar altimeter measures height above the ground itself. Essentially it bounces a signal off the terrain below and determines its vertical distance, displayed in feet.

What this interference would actually look like, I’m not sure. Would it be some transient flickering? A failure of the instrument? Whatever it might be, the implications of an outside signal messing with this data, when you’re low over the runway in the fog or blowing snow, hardly need explaining.

The FAA has published a list of at-risk runways; there are hundreds of them. Pilots may not land on these runways during low-vis conditions that require a radar altimeter — i.e. Category II or III approaches — without a special authorization. That authorization comes in the form of something called an “alternative means of compliance,” or AMOC. Two types of radar altimeters commonly installed on Boeing and Airbus models have been judged safe for operation into certain runways. For now, however, this AMOC clearance applies only to around 20 percent of the country’s busiest airports.

The entire thing is a mess. And we saw it coming. Airlines, along with pilot unions and other industry groups, have been sounding the alarm on this for the better part of two years.

How did this happen? Well, the previous administration didn't believe that governments should interfere with business, so no one at the FCC (which approved the 5G implementation) discussed it with anyone at the FAA until the FAA blew a gasket. And yet, in other countries, 5G rollouts haven't caused any of these problems. Maybe because the other countries, with their functioning governments, got the implementation right:

The French antennas have permanent safeguards in airport buffer zones that provide more protection than the US ones. Further, the French antennas near airports have to be tilted downward to reduce interference, and the French antennas have far less power. Not mentioned here but also notable is that in Europe, the C-Band spectrum is in the 3.4 to 3.8 GHz range, so it’s further away from the range that radio altimeters use.

The FAA has a handy infographic explaining this in more detail:

It must be nice to live in a country with a functioning government.

Update: The Times columnist Peter Coy has more about the previous administration's political infighting that led us here.

Fast and furious?

Josh Marshall lays out the evidence that the Omicron Covid variant hit hard and fast, but as in South Africa, appears to have a short life-span:

New York City was one of the first parts of the United States hit by the Omicron variant. The trajectory of the city’s surge now appears remarkably similar to the pattern we saw earlier in South Africa and other countries.

Data out of South Africa showed a roughly four week interval between the start of the Omicron surge and its peak. “Peak in four weeks and precipitous decline in another two,” said Fareed Abdullah of the South African Medical Research Council. “It was a flash flood more than a wave.”

New York City numbers appear to match this pattern almost exactly.

It looks like we may have much lower Covid numbers by the end of January here in Chicago. That said, not that it surprised anyone, but the way the city and State of Illinois have managed testing here seems a bit...hinky:

As Omicron cases surged, Chicagoans were told repeatedly by city, state and federal officials to get tested for COVID-19 — but few testing options were available.

The city previously shut down many of the free testing sites it ran, and the few government-run sites and health clinics still open were booked up. At-home tests sold out. Thousands of people turned to pop-ups that promised quick results, especially as they tried to keep family and friends safe during the holidays.

Now, many who tested at pop-ups are questioning if they got accurate results — and wondering where they can go to for trusted testing. Some have said they’re frustrated the government hasn’t done more to provide legitimate testing options, stockpile testing supplies and shut down bad actors.

Last week, Block Club highlighted how one locally based chain — the Center for COVID Control, with 300 locations across the United States — is now the subject of federal and state investigations after numerous people filed complaints about not getting results or getting delayed results. Authorities said the chain wasted more than 40,000 PCR tests and didn’t properly process rapid tests in multiple instances, among other concerns.

Officials are also beginning to crack down on the pop-ups. The Illinois Attorney General’s office and other agencies are investigating the Center for COVID Control, and the Attorney General’s Office has warned people to be cautious around pop-ups in general.

So, some opportunists predicted a Covid surge in December, bought up all the rapid tests, then opened pop-up stores to bilk the government and the people out of hundreds for "free" tests they could have gotten without "help" from the pop-ups.

The only people who could have predicted this turn of events were millions of us who grew up in Chicago.

Is the Covid test plan a stealth argument for single-payer? One can dream

New Republic Natalie Shure points out the absolute, crashing idiocy of getting private health insurance companies involved in procuring free Covid testing, because their whole reason for being is to prevent the efficient procurement of health care:

This rollout will be a disaster. And really, that should have been obvious: There’s a reason that the Covid-19 vaccines, monoclonal antibody treatments and antiviral drugs have been made free at the point of use, rather than routed through private insurers. It’s because the insurance industry is structurally incapable of achieving anything universally or efficiently.

That’s not hyperbole, it is by design: The role of private insurers within a for-profit multi-payer system is to restrict access as a gatekeeper, determining who is entitled to use which healthcare services and how much they pay for this. To keep these obligations profitable, they employ an army of claims assessors to argue with you, erect arbitrary hoops for providers and patients to jump through to prove you actually need certain care, raise copays and deductibles as high as possible, and foist as much of the paperwork as possible onto patients.

Insurance companies play the single ghastliest role in a legendarily ghastly healthcare system: Whatever invective you can hurl in Big Pharma’s direction, they at least produce something we actually need. Health insurers offer no value whatsoever; they have nothing to do with care itself and if the industry vaporized completely tomorrow, no one would mourn its demise—we’d all be better off. We’re maddeningly stuck with them for now, owing to a host of reasons ranging from inertia to political capture by industry.

[T]his is an object lesson: We’re in the hands of an industry that was never built to serve patients, a problem which no regulatory tweak will ever fix.

Yes, this is true. I learned that early in my career, leading to a long-standing policy of never working for a health insurer in any capacity.

Let me catalog some of my own experiences when big health-insurance companies have claimed to pay me to write software:

  • The first time, a major health-insurance company hired me to write software using a then-current technology, but the project wasn't ready to start, so they involuntarily put me on a team working with obsolete technology and a process so stultifying I didn't actually get to write code. I literally picked up my signing bonus on the way to several interviews in New York, and quit the day I got back. The entire division got dissolved about a year later.
  • Well into my professional career, I went to another major health-insurance company along with 8 other developers and managers, but under the aegis of a moderately-big consulting firm. The on-site project cost the client of about $150,000 per week. Of course, they couldn't get us network access or even a project charter. After about a month and about $750,000 spent, the company cancelled the project. I never even found out what software they proposed to build, had they gone through with, you know, building it.
  • More recently, a major health-insurance company hired me through a recently-acquired subsidiary as the 6th member of a team writing software in a language less than 3% of software developers ever use. I only took the gig because the subsidiary claimed a level of autonomy from the parent company it did not, in fact, enjoy. It occurred to me less than a week after starting that if the product we were building worked, it would undermine one of the key revenue streams of the parent company. Nevertheless, they hired a new developer to the team about every three weeks (despite an admitted 6-month ramp-up time in the language and product), at an average all-in cost of $18,000 per month per developer. I left after three months, as the team grew past 12 people and yet only completed about 5 function points a week.
    The parent company killed not only the project but also the entire acquired company about two years later. The software never shipped, though I did hear they had completed about half of the planned function points.
    On my way out the door I asked my manager what it said to him that the parent company didn't care about burning $200,000 a month on software that he and I both knew a couple of us could build in a garage in four months. He didn't say anything, but Upton Sinclair did*.

You may not see the connection between these failures, or why I jumped ship so quickly the third time, but it's actually really simple. In all three cases, the companies needed to show their shareholders ongoing investments in technology, and needed to show the general public plans for really great tools to make people's lives better any day now. But the best way any of these companies could have made anyone's lives better would be for the US government to obviate their health divisions by paying for our health care directly.

According to the World Bank, the US spends 17% of GDP on health care, behind only Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands (combined populations: 72,000). The first OECD countries on the list are Switzerland (11.9%), Germany (11.4%), and France (11.3%), all of which have vastly better outcomes than the US. How do they achieve this? By not having fat, bloody leeches draining their health spending on useless bullshit. Example: the National Institutes of Health found in a 2020 study that a staggering 34.2% of health-care expenditures in the US went into administration, compared with just 17% in Canada—and Canada has better health-care outcomes overall than we do.

Shure ends her column with an inescapable truth:

[I]t’s pretty telling that the very moment a life-threatening pandemic necessitated mass vaccination, the idea of involving private health insurance companies with that project was absolutely unthinkable. Who in their right mind would attempt to involve them in something urgent? And if they’re such a dismal way to confer access to Covid-19 testing to anyone who needs it, why the hell are they still playing the role they do in the healthcare system writ large?

Let's end this farce and get real single-payer health care in the US, so we can finally enter the 21st century with the rest of the OECD.

* "It is difficult to get a man to understand a thing when his salary depends on him not understanding it."

What to teach law students

UC Berkeley Law School dean Erwin Cemerinsky and UTA Law & Government professor Jeffrey Abramson try to keep a stiff upper lip when teaching in the shadow of the most partisan Supreme Court in a century:

For the first time in American history, the ideology of the justices precisely corresponds to the political party of the president who appointed them. All six conservatives were appointed by Republican presidents and all three liberals were appointed by Democratic presidents.

If students are to one day become effective litigators on constitutional rights, they will need to understand the ideologies of the justices interpreting the law. In the past, we certainly discussed the ideology of the justices with our students, but we must focus on it far more now as the ideological differences between the Republican-appointed justices and judges and those appointed by Democratic presidents are greater than they have ever been.

Second, we must remind students that there have been other bleak times in constitutional law when rights were contracted. From the 1890s until 1936, a conservative Supreme Court struck down over 200 progressive federal, state and local laws protecting workers and consumers. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the court refused to stand up to the hysteria of McCarthyism. The current court will not last forever, though it may feel like that to them.

Third, we should direct focus on other avenues for change. Students need to look more to state courts and legislatures, at least in some parts of the country, as a way to advance liberty and equality. For instance, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a law known as the “Roe Act,” protecting a woman’s right to abortion under state law, no matter what the Supreme Court decides.

In case you didn't already notice it's 1890 all over again, I suppose. I also quibble with "For the first time in American history, the ideology of the justices precisely corresponds to the political party of the president who appointed them." I believe that was also the same situation in 1790, with the first Court appointed by Washington.

Fed up with all that

Three items:

  1. James Fallows reminds us that the US Senate filibuster "is a perversion of the Constitution," that "enables the very paralysis the founders were desperate to avoid," among other things. (He also links to an essay by former US Senator Al Franken (D-MN) about how cynical the filibuster has become.)
  2. Jacob Rosenberg brings together workers' own stories about how they got fed up, illustrating how "the big quit" happened.
  3. Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon has had enough of the political disunion in the failing democracy to his south, and worries what that will mean to Canada.

On the hopeful side, though, we have the Webb Space Telescope gently nudging its mirrors into place at a rate of about 1 millimeter per day.