The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

What to teach new coders

Scott Hanselman recommends teaching systems thinking over technical coding:

I told this young person to try not to focus on the syntax of C# and the details of the .NET Framework, and rather to think about the problems that it solves and the system around it.

This advice was .NET specific, but it can also apply to someone learning Rails 3 talking to someone who knows Rails 5, or someone who learned original Node and is now reentering the industry with modern JavaScript and Node 12.

Do you understand how your system talks to the file system? To the network? Do you understand latency and how it can affect your system? Do you have a general understanding of "the stack" from when your backend gets data from the database makes anglebrackets or curly braces, sends them over the network to a client/browser, and what that next system does with the info?

Squeezing an analogy, I'm not asking you to be able to build a car from scratch, or even rebuild an engine. But I am asking you for a passing familiarity with internal combustion engines, how to change a tire, or generally how to change your oil. Or at least know that these things exist so you can google them.

This is why I'm a fan of Hanselman. He's right. Learning technical skills is easy; learning how to think is hard.

Stevens' own private Heller

Former Associate Justice John Paul Stevens believes District of Columbia v Heller was "unquestionably the most clearly incorrect decision that the Supreme Court announced during [his] tenure on the bench:"

The text of the Second Amendment unambiguously explains its purpose: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” When it was adopted, the country was concerned that the power of Congress to disarm the state militias and create a national standing army posed an intolerable threat to the sovereignty of the several states.

Throughout most of American history there was no federal objection to laws regulating the civilian use of firearms. When I joined the Supreme Court in 1975, both state and federal judges accepted the Court’s unanimous decision in United States v. Miller as having established that the Second Amendment’s protection of the right to bear arms was possessed only by members of the militia and applied only to weapons used by the militia. In that case, the Court upheld the indictment of a man who possessed a short-barreled shotgun, writing, “In the absence of any evidence that the possession or use of a ‘shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length’ has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument.”

So well settled was the issue that, speaking on the PBS NewsHour in 1991, the retired Chief Justice Warren Burger described the National Rifle Association’s lobbying in support of an expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment in these terms: “One of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special-interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

And after Heller came Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs...and on and on.

A long wait for a quick test

Scientists will soon have access to samples from a box of moon rocks that no one has opened since Neil Armstrong sealed it on the moon 50 years ago:

The upcoming experiments, on vacuum-sealed cores and a long-frozen rock, can be performed only once, at the precise moment the samples are opened. That’s why the materials have been held back since they were retrieved from the moon, said Ryan Zeigler, who curates the Apollo rocks collection. NASA was waiting for the right scientists, with the right technologies, at the right time.

With Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary this year and renewed interest in the moon ahead of a proposed return mission, Zeigler said, the right time is now.

Before the Apollo 11 mission, scientists couldn’t agree on where the moon came from. It’s a misfit in the solar system — much larger relative to its planet than almost any other moon. Some speculated that it was once an independent object that was “captured” by Earth’s gravity. Others proposed that the satellite formed in orbit alongside Earth when the planets were coalescing out of a primordial dust disc. Many grade-school textbooks taught that it was, in fact, a blob of Earth that had been flung away by our planet’s spin; the Pacific Ocean was thought to be a scar from this ancient loss.

All of those theories had to be discarded as soon as scientists saw the first Apollo rocks.

About 4.5 billion years ago, the theory goes, a long-gone giant planet called Theia, named for the mother of the Greek moon goddess, smashed into the newly formed Earth. The impact shattered both Theia and the proto-Earth and splashed millions of tons of material into space. Some of the rock coalesced in orbit around the Earth, and our satellite was born. The heaviest bits sank to the moon’s center, while the light minerals floated to the top of the worldwide magma ocean and crystallized, forming the thin anorthosite crust. The rocks and dust retrieved by Armstrong and Scott are relics of this long-ago tumult.

How cool! And how loony, in a sense. I can't wait to see whether they get evidence in support of the hypothesis.

AOC vs Chase Bank

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has no patience for Chase Bank's latest Tweet equating getting a latte with irresponsibility:

She continues:

When I was waitressing, I used to jerk awake in the middle of sleep worried that I may have forgotten if a bill cleared, or if I had enough $ to pay a Dr in cash. Was that bc I was “irresponsible?” No. It’s bc I wasn’t being paid a living wage as cost of living skyrocketed.

Now I’m going through a huge income transition compared to living off tips (which diff pay every week, very hard). & I have HEALTH INSURANCE, which now means I have fewer expenses. According to banks, I’d be more “responsible,” but my character hasn’t changed. Just my math.

The myth that bad credit or struggling w bills = irresponsibility is a heinous myth. Paying people less than what’s needed to live is what’s actually irresponsible. GDP + costs are rising, wages are not. That doesn’t mean YOU’RE bad. It means working people are set up to fail.

It’s a big part of what makes this Chase tweet so bad. It’s the idea that if you choose to have any expense beyond mere animalistic survival - an iced coffee, a cab after a 18hr shift on your feet - you deserve suffering, eviction, or skipped medicine. You don’t. Nobody does.

Read the thread. This is part of why she'll be president in 12 years.

Stupid anti-union tricks

Delta Airlines' management showed this week that they have no clue how their greed comes across:

Two posters made by Delta as part of an effort to dissuade thousands of its workers from joining a union drew a torrent of criticism after they were posted on social media Thursday.

The posters included messages targeting the price of the dues that company workers would be paying if the union formed.

“Union dues cost around $700 a year,” one noted. “A new video game system with the latest hits sounds like fun. Put your money towards that instead of paying dues to the union.”

The other, with a picture of a football, was framed similarly.

“What does $700 mean to you?” it said. “Nothing’s more enjoyable than a night out watching football with your buddies. All those union dues you pay every year could buy a few rounds.”

Delta made $5.2 billion in pre-tax income in 2018 and gave away about $1.3 billion to its employees in bonuses, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Union supporters were quick to point to the company’s financial success in recent years — it made $10.5 billion in revenue the first quarter of the year and saw its profits increase 31 percent to $730 million. Its chief executive, Ed Bastian, reportedly received $13.2 million in compensation in 2017.

Nice work, Delta. Yet another reason I fly American.

Like RAGBRAI, but 8 times farther

The Great American Rail-Trail is nearing completion:

On Wednesday, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy gave the grand reveal for an entirely car-free way to get across the country—the Great American Rail-Trail—that would connect Washington, D.C., to Seattle. The path runs through 12 states: Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington.

The launch event kicked off at Capitol Hill in D.C., near where the Capital Crescent Trail begins the cross-country route, as part of a live-streamed broadcast of events at stops along the way, including Columbus, Ohio; Three Forks, Montana; and South Cle Elu, Washington.

The vision for a complete cross-country route was one of the founding dreams for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, an organization hatched in 1986 to help convert former rail corridors into public trails for bikers, strollers, and other active transportation types. Founders David Burwell and Peter Harnik were railroad history buffs, and a coast-to-coast backbone was always part their vision. Not coincidentally, this week marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.

The group believes that they can finish the project in about 20 years.

How to protect your data from being stolen

Sadly, you can't. But you can protect yourself from identity theft, as Bruce Schneier explains:

The reality is that your sensitive data has likely already been stolen, multiple times. Cybercriminals have your credit card information. They have your social security number and your mother's maiden name. They have your address and phone number. They obtained the data by hacking any one of the hundreds of companies you entrust with the data­ -- and you have no visibility into those companies' security practices, and no recourse when they lose your data.

Given this, your best option is to turn your efforts toward trying to make sure that your data isn't used against you. Enable two-factor authentication for all important accounts whenever possible. Don't reuse passwords for anything important -- ­and get a password manager to remember them all.

Do your best to disable the "secret questions" and other backup authentication mechanisms companies use when you forget your password­ -- those are invariably insecure. Watch your credit reports and your bank accounts for suspicious activity. Set up credit freezes with the major credit bureaus. Be wary of email and phone calls you get from people purporting to be from companies you do business with.

At the very least, download a password safe (like the one Schneier himself helped write) and make sure that you use a different, random password for everything.

Is it time to break up Facebook?

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes thinks so:

America was built on the idea that power should not be concentrated in any one person, because we are all fallible. That’s why the founders created a system of checks and balances. They didn’t need to foresee the rise of Facebook to understand the threat that gargantuan companies would pose to democracy. Jefferson and Madison were voracious readers of Adam Smith, who believed that monopolies prevent the competition that spurs innovation and leads to economic growth.

A century later, in response to the rise of the oil, railroad and banking trusts of the Gilded Age, the Ohio Republican John Sherman said on the floor of Congress: “If we will not endure a king as a political power, we should not endure a king over the production, transportation and sale of any of the necessities of life. If we would not submit to an emperor, we should not submit to an autocrat of trade with power to prevent competition and to fix the price of any commodity.” The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 outlawed monopolies. More legislation followed in the 20th century, creating legal and regulatory structures to promote competition and hold the biggest companies accountable. The Department of Justice broke up monopolies like Standard Oil and AT&T.

For many people today, it’s hard to imagine government doing much of anything right, let alone breaking up a company like Facebook. This isn’t by coincidence.

Starting in the 1970s, a small but dedicated group of economists, lawyers and policymakers sowed the seeds of our cynicism. Over the next 40 years, they financed a network of think tanks, journals, social clubs, academic centers and media outlets to teach an emerging generation that private interests should take precedence over public ones. Their gospel was simple: “Free” markets are dynamic and productive, while government is bureaucratic and ineffective. By the mid-1980s, they had largely managed to relegate energetic antitrust enforcement to the history books.

This shift, combined with business-friendly tax and regulatory policy, ushered in a period of mergers and acquisitions that created megacorporations. In the past 20 years, more than 75 percent of American industries, from airlines to pharmaceuticals, have experienced increased concentration, and the average size of public companies has tripled. The results are a decline in entrepreneurship, stalled productivity growth, and higher prices and fewer choices for consumers.

The same thing is happening in social media and digital communications. Because Facebook so dominates social networking, it faces no market-based accountability. This means that every time Facebook messes up, we repeat an exhausting pattern: first outrage, then disappointment and, finally, resignation.

Hughes makes excellent points. Just because the industries look different than those in the 1890s doesn't mean they haven't consolidated too much. History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

First, let's kill all the townships

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 divided most of the land west of Pennsylvania into 6-by-6 mile squares called "townships." You can see the physical effects of the Ordinance any time you fly over the Great Plains: uniform squares of roads linking towns about 9½ km apart.

The Ordinance established townships to allow rural residents to get to their centers of government and home in the same day. In the era of travel by horseback, this saved days or weeks of travel for farmers and townsfolk alike.

In the era of travel by car, however, we no longer need the redundancy. Chicago magazine recommends getting rid of them altogether:

It’s not just urban counties that find remnant townships burdensome. Some rural counties want to get rid of their townships, too. Last month, State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, passed a bill that would allow McHenry County townships to dissolve themselves.

“My goal is to reduce the number of governmental bodies — it’s one of the reasons our property taxes are so high,” McSweeney said. “Consolidation, I think, is the key to reducing property taxes and administrative fees.”

Like most Illinois counties, Cook was originally platted with a grid of townships. The townships now contained by Chicago, including Rogers Park, Hyde Park, and Lake View, passed out of existence upon annexation. In the suburbs, townships still exist, even if all their land has been incorporated. In Cook County, remnant unincorporated bits of township could be required to join the nearest municipality, which would then take over township duties, as Evanston did.

There’s a saying that bureaucracy perpetuates itself, and that’s certainly true of townships. They’re so hard to get rid of because they’re a juicy source of jobs, patronage, and double-dipping for elected officials.

The Daily Parker agrees. Time to move on from one of the best ideas of the 1780s.