The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Three cheers for a friendly fungus

As this 2017 article from National Geographic explains, humans and yeast have had a tremendously successful relationship for the last 9,000 years or so:

From our modern point of view, ethanol has one very compelling property: It makes us feel good. Ethanol helps release serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins in the brain, chemicals that make us happy and less anxious.

To our fruit-eating primate ancestors swinging through the trees, however, the ethanol in rotting fruit would have had three other appealing characteristics. First, it has a strong, distinctive smell that makes the fruit easy to locate. Second, it’s easier to digest, allowing animals to get more of a commodity that was precious back then: calories. Third, its antiseptic qualities repel microbes that might sicken a primate. Millions of years ago one of them developed a taste for fruit that had fallen from the tree. “Our ape ancestors started eating fermented fruits on the forest floor, and that made all the difference,” says Nathaniel Dominy, a biological anthropologist at Dartmouth College. “We’re preadapted for consuming alcohol.”

Flash forward millions of years to a parched plateau in southeastern Turkey, not far from the Syrian border. Archaeologists there are exploring another momentous transition in human prehistory, and a tantalizing possibility: Did alcohol lubricate the Neolithic revolution? Did beer help persuade Stone Age hunter-gatherers to give up their nomadic ways, settle down, and begin to farm?

The idea that’s gaining support...was first proposed more than half a century ago: Beer, rather than bread, may have been the inspiration for our hunter-gatherer ancestors to domesticate grains. Eventually, simply harvesting wild grasses to brew into beer wouldn’t have been enough. Demand for reliable supplies pushed humans first to plant the wild grasses and then over time to selectively breed them into the high-yielding barley, wheat, and other grains we know today.

Alcohol may afford psychic pleasures and spiritual insight, but that’s not enough to explain its universality in the ancient world. People drank the stuff for the same reason primates ate fermented fruit: because it was good for them. Yeasts produce ethanol as a form of chemical warfare—it’s toxic to other microbes that compete with them for sugar inside a fruit. That antimicrobial effect benefits the drinker. It explains why beer, wine, and other fermented beverages were, at least until the rise of modern sanitation, often healthier to drink than water.

Alas, the SARS-Cov-2 virus has made it nearly impossible to continue the Brews and Choos Project, which celebrates the ingenuity of yeast and the single-mindedness of humans.

Speaking of the B&CP, I may cautiously resume the project this coming Friday. Or tomorrow. It depends on the weather, because regardless of the state's official relaxation of distancing rules, I don't think going into a restaurant or brewpub makes a lot of sense until I can confirm my own immunity to and inability to transmit the virus. I have no idea when that will be, in large part because of the Trump Administration's endemic incompetence. But many brewpubs have outdoor patio space, and on a warm sunny day, risks seem to be lower.

Friendly Anglo-American competition

Parts of the United States and the United Kingdom have started a friendly competition to see which English-speaking country can obviate months of combating Covid-19 in the stupidest ways possible.

Up first, the UK, where so many people have flocked (in the 32°C heat) to the Channel Coast that Bournemouth, Christchurch, and Poole have declared a major incident:

Bournemouth East MP, Tobias Ellwood, said half a million people had flocked to the beaches and said the situation was so overwhelming that the UK government should step in to help the council deal with the crisis.

He said: “A lot of people have chosen to be not just irresponsible but dangerous. We’ve made such progress tackling this pandemic. I’d hate to see Bournemouth be the one place in Britain that gets that second spike.”

The council leader, Vikki Slade, said: “We are absolutely appalled at the scenes witnessed on our beaches, particularly at Bournemouth and Sandbanks [in neighbouring Poole].

“The irresponsible behaviour and actions of so many people is just shocking and our services are stretched to the absolute hilt trying to keep everyone safe. We have had no choice but to declare a major incident and initiate an emergency response.

“The numbers of people descending down here are like those seen on a bank holiday. We are not in a position to welcome visitors in these numbers now. Please do not come.”

A "major incident" in the UK is similar to a disaster declaration in the US: it allows multiple agencies to coordinate and frees up emergency money.

Not to be outdone, Texas, the state that invented the phrase "hold my beer and watch this," and which had started reopening its economy despite not meeting its own goals for infection and positive-test rates, has now reversed course do to skyrocketing Covid-19 new infections:

“The last thing we want to do as a state is go backwards and close down businesses," Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement. "This temporary pause will help our state corral the spread until we can safely enter the next phase of opening our state for business."

[T]he grim news was not just limited to Texas as the U.S. saw a record number of new coronavirus cases in a single day, with 45,557 reported Wednesday, according to a tally by NBC News.

Southern and Western states like Arizona and Florida that began aggressively reopening around Memorial Day are now seeing staggering spikes that make clear the deadly virus is showing no sign of going away, as President Donald Trump has repeatedly predicted.

I'm not even going to talk about Florida.

Josh Marshall yells into the wind, "this didn't have to happen:"

States around the country, responsive to the President’s messaging, have continued aggressive re-openings while cases were rising. President Trump has also consistently sent a message that basic mitigation strategies like masking are a sign of political affiliation with liberals and Democrats. Put more frankly, he’s being saying they’re for sissies. Republican politicians who rely on his support have backed this messaging and even outlawed cities’ efforts to protect themselves by imposing mitigation strategies at the city level. Since these governors mostly have their political bases of support in rural and exurban areas this amounts to the as yet lightly hit rural regions using their minoritarian political power to prevent the cities from protecting themselves.

So who wins? We'll see what Covid-19 infection rates look like in England's Southeast in two weeks, but for abject stupidity, we're hard to beat.

So much to read

I'm back in the office tomorrow, after taking a 7:15 am call with a colleague in India. So I won't spend a lot of time reading this stuff tonight:

OK, I need 3,700 steps before 10pm, and then I need to empty my dog and go to bed.

Ah, the company we keep

If I have to go more than a year without visiting Europe because my fellow Americans are too individualistic to stop the spread of Covid-19, I might have to move there permanently when able:

In case you wondered what President Trump’s glorious triumph over coronavirus looks like to the rest of the world, the news that the European Union may bar Americans from entry due to our spiking cases provides a sobering reality check.

If this goes through, it would mark a continuation of a prohibition that had been in place on travelers from the United States and elsewhere since mid-March. Only now it would be extended through the E.U.’s official reopening in July.

But I want to focus on this remarkable explanation of why this may happen:

Trump, as well as his Russian and Brazilian counterparts, Vladimir V. Putin and Jair Bolsonaro, has followed what critics call a comparable path in their pandemic response that leaves all three countries in a similarly bad spot: they were dismissive at the outset of the crisis, slow to respond to scientific advice and saw a boom of domestic cases as other parts of the world, notably in Europe and Asia, were slowly managing to get their outbreaks under control.

And so, in this, we are parting ways with our Western allies, while being quite similar to Russia and Brazil, whose responses were similarly tangled in their leadership’s disdain for empiricism and science.

I am heartened, however, that the president's declining approval ratings suggest that people have gotten tired of the reality TV show now that reality has intruded.

Yesterday I posted the following on Facebook in response to an acquaintance posting the questionable statement that the ADA allows people to ignore mask regulations:

I don't know if your state has executed legislation requiring you to wear a mask in public. And I don't care.

First, private property owners can deny entrance to anyone on a rational, non-discriminatory basis, particularly when following official guidance. Meaning, if I own a shop, and I make a rule you have to wear a nose-and-mouth covering in my shop, that's property rights. (NB: If I let Karen in without a mask and I make Jim wait outside even though he has a mask, that's discriminatory and illegal under the Civil Rights Act. Fight me.)

Second, the ENTIRE POINT right now is that we are agreeing to waive certain rights in exchange for NOT DYING OR KILLING PEOPLE. I know "civilization" is a new concept on the Internet, but, hey, humans have a million-year tradition of cooperating that I'd like to continue. But, sure, argue in favor of...uh, cytokene storms, I guess, and the rest of us will continue to protect those who can't protect themselves.

Because, ultimately, that's the argument. "Don't tell me what I can and can't do" is the cry of a 5-year-old, not a fully-formed human. We're asking you to do the right thing. And if you refuse, and your refusal puts people at risk of DEATH, then yes, we (your neighbors, friends, and people you voted for to govern shit you didn't have the mental space to govern yourself) will tell you no, we're doing this, because your convenience is less important than your neighbor's kid's life.

So far I have 23 Likes and 6 Loves for that. (My post on Parker's birthday has over 100 Likes, so clearly people have their priorities.)

It's way past time for this amendment

Attorney General William Barr's behavior since taking office, and especially over the past week, demonstrates the need for the United States to do what 43 other states already do: elect the Attorney General.

Here's my proposed Constitutional amendment:

Sec. 1. The chief legal officer of the United States and chief executive officer of the Department of Justice shall be an Attorney General, elected by the People for a term of four years, to commence on January 10th of the third year following the most recent election of the President.

Sec. 2. No Person shall be eligible to the Office of Attorney General who shall not have attained to the age of thirty years, and been nine years a Citizen of the United States, and been seven years a resident within the United States.

Sec. 3. No person shall be elected to the office of the Attorney General more than twice, and no person who has held the office of Attorney General, or acted as Attorney General, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected Attorney General shall be elected to the office of the Attorney General more than once.

Sec. 4. No person who has held the office of Attorney General, or acted as Attorney General, shall serve in any Office created by Articles II or III of this Constitution, or legislation based thereon, until four years have passed after serving as Attorney General.

Sec. 5. The Attorney General shall have the power to appoint and remove, with the advice and consent of the Senate, a United States Attorney for each Judicial District that Congress may establish, and a Deputy Attorney General, who shall assume the office of Attorney General should the office become vacant during the term of office. The Attorney General shall have the power to appoint other officers of the Department of Justice as Congress may provide by legislation.

Sec. 6. This article shall take effect on January 10th of the third year following its ratification.

Section 1 establishes that the office and the department she runs are separate from the Executive Branch, and chosen in the midterm elections. Section 2 sets the requirements for office to be the same as for US Senator. Section 3 sets term limits in the same language as the 22nd Amendment. Section 4 shuts the revolving door, except a former AG can still run for Congress. Section 5 gives the AG, and not the President, the power to appoint US Attorneys and her own deputy, with Senate approval; but she can appoint other officers that Congress may create without Senate approval. Section 6 gives the Executive-branch Justice Department two years to fully devolve into its own Constitutional realm.

If this were to be ratified in 2024, for example, we would vote for AG in November 2026 and swear her in on 10 January 2027. That person would then serve until 2031, and be ineligible to serve in the Executive branch or as a Federal judge until 2035.

Thoughts?

What just happened in SDNY?

On Friday night, US Attorney General William Barr announced that Jeffrey Berman, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, had resigned. Minutes later, Berman said "the hell I have."

A couple of problems immediately present themselves when you think about this. First, only the president can fire a US Attorney. (President Trump finally did that last night.) Second, the highest law-enforcement official in the country, lied in writing about this. Third, the SDNY has multiple, ongoing investigations into the president's associates and businesses. Fourth, Barr's first announcement of Berman's replacement (a well-known Trump fellatist supporter) flouted the actual black-letter law giving that power to the judges of the SDNY (who, in fact, appointed Berman).

Calling this "extraordinary" doesn't do justice to the violence this dealt to the rule of law.

The Times:

The attorney general’s interventions in high-profile cases involving the onetime Trump advisers Roger J. Stone Jr. and Michael T. Flynn have prompted accusations from current and former law enforcement officials that Mr. Barr has politicized the department.

Over the last year, Mr. Berman’s office brought indictments against two close associates of the president’s current lawyer, Mr. Giuliani, and began an investigation into Mr. Giuliani himself, focusing on whether his efforts to dig up dirt in Ukraine on the president’s political rivals violated laws on lobbying for foreign entities.

Mr. Berman’s office also conducted an investigation into Mr. Trump’s inaugural committee, subpoenaing financial and other records as part of a broad inquiry into possible illegal contributions from foreigners.

David Kurtz doesn't stop at "accusations...Barr has politicized the department:"

We’re deep into the worst crisis in the history of the Justice Department, and it keeps deepening. This isn’t alarming for what it signifies or for what it suggests might happen next or because it raises vague future concerns. It’s alarming because this is the corruption and the wrongdoing and the malfeasance. Right here, right now. Not some theoretical future threat. This is the nightmare of a president run amok with a captive Justice Department. We’re there. We’re living it.

James Comey, who worked as an assistant US Attorney in SDNY early in his career, has also spoken up:

There has always been a tension — much of it healthy — between Washington and the Southern District, but the attempt to fire the current United States attorney feels very different. Geoffrey Berman’s office has apparently been handling cases very close to the president. In 136 days, there is an election that the incumbent appears likely to lose. The attorney general, surely not proceeding on his own, acts to bump the well-regarded head of the Office on a Friday night, in the middle of a pandemic. Something stinks.

The country is well-served by the independent spirit and reputation of the Southern District of New York. It has long been the place where hard cases could be done in a way Americans trusted. It was where Bill Clinton’s 11th-hour pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich could be credibly investigated. It is also the place with jurisdiction over so much of this president’s complicated life.

And it is a place that follows the facts alone to reach conclusions, without regard to politics, just as [Henry L.] Stimson wanted. Maybe that’s why William P. Barr moved to knock off Berman on a Friday night and announced President Trump’s intention to replace him with someone who has never worked there. And maybe that’s why Berman, in the finest traditions of the office, stood up.

House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler (D-NY) has opened an investigation, with a hearing already scheduled for Tuesday.

Where I was supposed to be today

In November, the Apollo Chorus of Chicago performed in the Chicago Opera Theater production of Everest, a 2015 opera by Joby Talbot. After the second performance, Talbot and a number of the soloists met some of us out for drinks nearby. Andrew Bidlack, who sang the role of Rob Hall, mentioned they were going to London to perform the work at the Barbican. I told him I'd be there.

That performance should have taken place tonight at 7:30 BST. Obviously, it's cancelled, and even if it weren't, Covid-19 precautions mean I can't even get into the UK right now without a 14-day quarantine after arrival.

The middle half of 2020 may turn out to be the most disappointing period in my lifetime. But I'm optimistic about the fourth quarter, and about 2021. We'll get through this.

Then and now: Wilson Yard

I found this photo from 1964 at Chicago-L.org, looking north along what is now the Red Line from above Buena Park:

Here's almost the same view yesterday:

So, a few changes. Two the west, three city blocks of apartments became Truman College in 1974. Wilson Yards and the Wilson Avenue Shop (the El structure in the center) burned down in 1994, replaced now by a Target and an apartment building. And all the trees have grown up.

Another thing: I found out more about how high I can take the drone. Generally, it's limited to 120 m AGL. But I can also take it up 120 m above any "structure" as long as I'm within 120 m of the structure. The flagpole on top of the Byline Bank is 58 m above the ground, meaning I could, with a quick adjustment to the drone settings, try taking it up to 178 m... Hmm...

Update, 40 minutes later: Yep. It'll go up to 130 m no problem in calm winds:

Then and Now, Lawrence and Broadway

Now that I have a drone, I've been looking for historical aerial photos of Chicago. I found this 1933 photo of Uptown through the Chicago Public Library collection:

Here's approximately the same view about an hour ago:

Some things immediately jump out. First, the trees. My how they've grown! Second, in the distance you can see the construction of Montrose Harbor in 1933 and the completed harbor (by 1937) in 2020. Third, we have a lot more parking lots and a lot less grime on our buildings these days. And what the hell is that huge industrial building billowing smoke at the corner of Montrose and Clarendon (upper-right corner of 1933)?

Since drones can only legally fly 120 m above the ground in the US, I couldn't get exactly the same angle as in the original photo. My best guess from a number of clues is that the top photo was taken from an airplane flying about 250 m (maybe not even that high) AGL shortly after 1pm on a sunny but hazy early-April afternoon. The air quality in Chicago in 2020 is so much better than at any point in the 20th century that almost no aerial photos from that era will have light as sharp and clear as we get today.

I have a couple more of these up my sleeve. Stay tuned.

Afternoon news roundup

My inbox does not respect the fact that I had meetings between my debugging sessions all day. So this all piled up:

Finally, conferencing app Zoom will roll out true end-to-end encryption in July.