The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Counting up to 270

The Electoral College started voting early this morning. Each state delegation casts its votes separately, usually in the respective state capitol buildings. The New York just voted a few minutes ago, bringing the totals so far today to Biden 161, STBXPOTUS 158. California votes late in the day, so once again it may seem like it's close but it really isn't.

In just a few hours, Joe Biden will officially be the President-Elect of the United States. The House and Senate will count the votes in a joint session on January 6th, and Joe Biden will take office as the 46th President of the United States on January 20th.

Now, if we can just get the STBXPOTUS to shut up, we might have a happier transition.

How to talk to irrational people

I'm not good at it, personally. But NBC News has some advice they've titled "How to talk to your friends and family about Covid, vaccines and wearing masks:"

“You always want to offer your empathy first,” said Amy Pisani, executive director of Vaccinate Your Family, the nation’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to vaccine advocacy. “If they have a personal story, start with your shared values.”

Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, said that confrontation is particularly doomed to failure when talking to people who have fallen down conspiracy rabbit holes.

“Many conspiracy theorists score high in a trait called psychological reactance, which, to put it simply, is like an allergic reaction to being told what to do,” Taylor said. “We have to think of messages that don’t trigger that psychological reactance.”

Rather, it may be more effective to find non-confrontational ways to appeal to people that don’t overtly challenge their sense of self or freedom — a concept that Taylor refers to as introducing “behavioral nudges.” Instead of harping on the scientifically proven benefits of wearing a mask, for instance, people could try to convince friends and family to don face coverings for the good of their community.

Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., said the emergence of conspiracy theories in times of upheaval has been well-documented throughout history.

“What you often see is that in times of uncertainty — whether it’s political uncertainty, economic uncertainty or social uncertainty — there’s a surge in conspiracy theories,” van der Linden said.

And that’s cause for real concern. Van der Linden’s research has shown that people who believe misinformation about the coronavirus are less likely to wear masks or get vaccinated, which makes it critical at this juncture of the pandemic to try to engage, rather than ignore, skeptical loved ones.

In times of extreme stress, we become apes, in other words. Yet somehow, we'll get through this.

Wishful thinking from New Republic

I mean, more than usual. In our delusional fading days of empire, Kyle Edward Williams states the obvious:

[I]t’s worth pondering just how close we came to a hostile private sector takeover of the American political tradition. Modern America has long been infatuated with the transcendental wisdom ascribed to business sense, so it’s something of an oddity that the U.S. has not elected more businesspeople to the high office, even if many have tried. Indeed, it’s never really been the case that America has exhibited total deference to business leadership.

In recent years, presidential candidates have made their business experience an important part of their pitch to the American voter. George W. Bush had a less-than-stellar career as an oil and gas executive, and his first major business success came from a lucrative deal with a group of wealthy family friends that made him managing general partner of the Texas Rangers, but he was still the first president to have an MBA—and his came from Harvard Business School. Time called Bush the “CEO president,” though one suspects that he might have been happier (and almost certainly more effective) as the commissioner of Major League Baseball.

[T]his election may prove to be a turning point in our political discourse. Not just because of Biden’s victory but also because of Trump’s unrelenting attacks on scientific experts, civil servants, and public institutions of almost all kinds, Americans have rallied around the ideal of public service. In the days after November 3, postal workers received standing ovations in the streets of America’s major cities. People wear Anthony Fauci T-shirts. Such displays may strike us as cringeworthy in certain ways—it’s not the point of public service to court mass adulation, after all. But at another level, they’re also a healthy and long-overdue celebration of the real good that democratic institutions can do. A Biden presidency stands poised to rehabilitate the public servant and to put to rest, at least for a time, the myth of the omnicompetent business reformer.

Well, sure. Except the exact people who supported the STBXPOTUS also think he knew how to run a business.

Floating holiday: achievement unlocked

My company gives us the usual American holidays off, and adds two "floating holidays" you can take whenever you want. I took my first one in January and just remembered last week that I hadn't taken the second one. So I took it today. Which gave me some time to read a bunch of things:

Finally, the list I posted Wednesday needs an update. In October 1918, influenza killed 195,000 Americans, or an average of 6,290 per day. So clearly most of that month set records well above the records we set this week.

There's a meme going around

I saw a slightly-inaccurate version of this on Facebook and corrected it.

Here's a list of the most single day, single cause deaths in American history, through yesterday today. See if you can spot the pattern:

  1. Galveston hurricane, 9 Sep 1900 (~6,000)
  2. Battle of Antietam, 18 Sep 1862 (3,652)
  3. Puerto Rico hurricane, 7 Aug 1899 (3,389)
  4. SF earthquake, 18 Apr 1906 (~3,100)
  5. Covid-19, 9 Dec 2020 (3,011)
  6. Terrorist attacks, 11 Sep 2001 (2,996)
  7. Covid-19, 3 Dec 2020 (2,861)
  8. Okeechobee hurricane, 17 Sep 1928 (~2,800)
  9. Covid-19, 2 Dec 2020 (2,762)
  10. Covid-19, 8 Dec 2020 (2,566)
  11. Pearl Harbor, 7 Dec 1941 (2,467)
  12. Covid-19, 1 Dec 2020 (2,461)
  13. Covid-19, 4 Dec 2020 (2,439)
  14. Covid-19, 5 Dec 2020 (2,310)

More important is that the only disaster to kill more Americans on an annualized basis than Covid-19 is the 1918-1919 flu, and it's a very close number (about 300,000 deaths per year attributable to each). As the winter goes on and Covid-19 deaths increase, I expect it will surpass the 1918 flu on that basis.

But no disaster has killed more Americans than HIV/AIDS, except smallpox, depending on when you start counting.

Data from CDC.

Mixed news on Tuesday morning

Today's news stories comprise a mixed bag:

Finally, a little sweetness for a cold December day: Whisky Advocate has a recipe for bourbon balls that I hope someone will try and share with me. I'll even supply the bourbon.

Calling it what it is

Turkish writer Zeynep Tufecki thinks it's important we call the president's actions an attempted coup, despite its ridiculousness and incompetence:

Much debate has ensued about what exactly to call whatever Trump is attempting right now, and about how worried we should be. It’s true, the whole thing seems ludicrous—the incoherent lawsuits, the late-night champagne given to official election canvassers in Trump hotels, the tweets riddled with grammatical errors and weird capitalization. Trump has been broadly acknowledged as “norm shattering” and some have argued that this is just more of his usual bluster, while others have pointed out terminological issues with calling his endeavors a coup. Coup may not quite capture what we’re witnessing in the United States right now, but there’s also a danger here: Punditry can tend to focus too much on decorum and terminology, like the overachieving students so many of us once were, conflating the ridiculous with the unserious. The incoherence and incompetence of the attempt do not change its nature, however, nor do those traits allow us to dismiss it or ignore it until it finally fails on account of that incompetence.

The U.S. president is trying to steal the election, and, crucially, his party either tacitly approves or is pretending not to see it. This is a particularly dangerous combination, and makes it much more than just typical Trumpian bluster or norm shattering.

Maybe in other languages, from places with more experience with this particular type of power grab, we’d be better able to discuss the subtleties of this effort, to distinguish the postelection intervention from the Election Day injustices, to separate the legal but frivolous from the outright lawless, and to understand why his party’s reaction—lack of reaction—is not just about wanting to conclude an embarrassing presidency with minimal fanfare. But in English, only one widely understood word captures what Donald Trump is trying to do, even though his acts do not meet its technical definition. Trump is attempting to stage some kind of coup, one that is embedded in a broader and ongoing power grab.

And if that’s hard to recognize, this might be your first.

What makes this moment deeply alarming—and makes Republicans’ overwhelming silence and tacit approval deeply dangerous, rather than merely an attempt to run out the clock on the president’s clownish behavior—is that Trump’s attempt to steal this election builds on a process that has already entrenched minority rule around the country.

[I]gnoring a near catastrophe that was averted by the buffoonish, half-hearted efforts of its would-be perpetrator invites a real catastrophe brought on by someone more competent and ambitious. President Trump had already established a playbook for contesting elections in 2016 by casting doubt on the election process before he won, and insisting that he only lost the popular vote due to fraud. Now he’s establishing a playbook for stealing elections by mobilizing executive, judicial, and legislative power to support the attempt. And worse, much worse, the playbook is being implicitly endorsed by the silence of some leading Republicans, and vocally endorsed by others, even as minority rule becomes increasingly entrenched in the American electoral system.

Alarmism is problematic when it’s sensationalist. Alarmism is essential when conditions make it appropriate.

Our focus should not be a debate about the proper terminology. Instead, we should react to the frightening substance of what we’re facing, even if we also believe that the crassness and the incompetence of this attempt may well doom it this time. If the Republican Party, itself entrenching minority rule on many levels, won’t stand up to Trump’s attempt to steal an election through lying and intimidation with the fury the situation demands; if the Democratic Party’s leadership remains solely focused on preparing for the presidency of Joe Biden rather than talking openly about what’s happening; and if ordinary citizens feel bewildered and disempowered, we may settle the terminological debate in the worst possible way: by accruing enough experience with illegitimate power grabs to evolve a more fine-grained vocabulary.

Remember the key difference between the parties in the US: Democrats want to govern, but Republicans want to rule.

Yesterday got away from me

Just reviewing what I actually got up to yesterday, I'm surprised that I didn't post anything. I'm not surprised, however, that all of these articles piled up for me to read today:

While I'm reading all of that, I've got a stew going in my Instant Pot (on slow-cooker mode). Unfortunately, it seems I underestimated the bulkiness of stew ingredients. I think I'll have a lot of leftovers:

Grim milestone, mostly preventable

Today, for the first time, the United States had more deaths from Covid-19 in a single day (3,100) than the total number of deaths from the September 11th terror attacks (2,996).

To understand how this happened, one need only look at Iowa:

To visit Iowa right now is to travel back in time to the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in places such as New York City and Lombardy and Seattle, when the horror was fresh and the sirens never stopped. Sick people are filling up ICUs across the state. Health-care workers like Klein are being pushed to their physical and emotional limits. On the TV in my parents’ house in Burlington, hospital CEOs are begging Iowans to hunker down and please, for the love of God, wear a mask. This sense of new urgency is strange, though, because the pandemic isn’t in its early days. The virus has been raging for eight months in this country; Iowa just hasn’t been acting like it.

The story of the coronavirus in this state is one of government inaction in the name of freedom and personal responsibility. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds has followed President Donald Trump’s lead in downplaying the virus’s seriousness. She never imposed a full stay-at-home order for the state and allowed bars and restaurants to open much earlier than in other places. She imposed a mask mandate for the first time this month—one that health-care professionals consider comically ineffectual—and has questioned the science behind wearing masks at all. Through the month of November, Iowa vacillated between 1,700 and 5,500 cases every day. This week, the state’s test-positivity rate reached 50 percent. Iowa is what happens when a government does basically nothing to stop the spread of a deadly virus.

South Dakota, Idaho, Kansas, Iowa, and Oregon all have positivity rates over 40% today. It's so bad in South Dakota that the Cheyenne River Sioux Chief likened it to being trapped in a house on fire. Illinois is at 10.6%, high enough that state, county, and city authorities have slammed on the brakes again and started talking seriously about mask mandates. States in the northeast that locked down early and hard and stayed that way, like New York and Massachusetts, have rates under 5%. If only there were some relationship in the data we could find...hmm...

I wonder what people sent to Hong Kong jails for merely advocating in favor of democracy think about Republicans' attitudes towards "freedom and personal responsibility." Maybe we should send some Republicans to Hong Kong to find out.

Star Trek: Discovery's 3rd season irks me

Don't get me wrong, I am enjoying the latest Star Trek series immensely. But the third season's handling of its pretty stark historical implications bug me to death.

Warning: spoilers possible ahead.

Star Trek: Discovery's third season begins with the series protagonist, Cdr Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), having jumped from the year 2259 to 3187, more than 900 years after the events of season 2. The eponymous starship shows up a year later. Now, even though Discovery has a unique propulsion system that enables it to travel to any point in space instantaneously, it's still a 900-year-old ship. And yet somehow it and its crew can function in its new era without too much friction.

Let me try to paint a picture of our world 900 years ago and see if the multitudes of problems with this scenario make you scratch your head too.

In 1100, the most powerful military vessels were Viking longboats, made of wood, using square sails, and projecting force 200 meters or so with iron-tipped arrows delivered by longbow. Today, the most powerful military ships (measured by deliverable ordnance) are ballistic-missile submarines, made of high-strength steel and titanium alloys, using nuclear reactors powering silent, computer-designed screws, and projecting force to any part of the planet with hydrogen-bomb-tipped rockets. A 17,000-tonne Ohio-class submarine could destroy a fleet of longboats merely by surfacing from directly beneath them. And you don't even have to think of how the Vikings would fare against a submarine or even an aircraft carrier to get a sense of what 900 years of technological advancement has accomplished: a Coast Guard Medium Endurance Cutter could lay waste to the entire Viking navy without even removing the safeties on its 62mm cannons simply by swamping the Viking ships with its 30-knot wake. Or forget military vessels: how well do you think a Viking fleet would do against a Panamax container ship? Or how about a 16th-century man-o'-war, which can sail almost directly upwind while firing guns?

In 1100, advanced non-military technology included windmills (10th century) and the number zero (8th century, just getting to Europe around 1100). The Chinese had just invented moveable type a few years earlier, and the Arabs were about to invent al-Jabr (algebra), but neither of these ideas would penetrate Europe for centuries. People would have to wait 200 years to button their clothes or wear eyeglasses, and 700 years before getting a vaccine for anything. I mention the first vaccine because the disease it prevented (smallpox) no longer exists in the wild, but neither does the vaccine. An average Roman from 1100 suddenly popping up in Rome in 2020 could kill thousands just by breathing—but social distancing wouldn't be a problem, because the 12th-century Roman probably never bathed in his life.

In 1100, nobody in Europe spoke a language that is spoken today, except possibly the Basques. Communication might be possible with a 12th-century Chinese person in Mandarin, but even then, I expect pronunciation might have drifted a bit. The Star Trek universe has universal translators, but personal-size UTs didn't exist during Discovery's era, and wouldn't for another 70 years. Maybe everyone in the 32nd century has one? Maybe all the UTs in 3188 also come with a package of historical languages that died out hundreds of years ago, like English may have, just in case? Before you say "people spoke Latin both in 1100 and today," I assure you that the Latin "spoken" in 1100 wasn't actual, spoken Latin, because that died out in the 5th-7th centuries after Rome fell. By the 1100s, the Catholic Church's "Latin" had devolved into a unique, bizarre, ahistorical form that no citizen of the Roman Empire would have understood even without the vowel drifts that occurred over time. Perhaps some scholars in the Vatican today might be able to speak with their 12th-century counterparts, but that is kind of my point. I'm sure someone in some university on Earth could speak and understand English in 3188, but that wouldn't help Burnham when she first met Book, now would it?

In 1100, traveling from London to Canterbury took about a week; traveling to Paris took about two; and traveling to Rome took about four. Today, all three destinations are about two hours away, by car, train, and airplane, respectively. Traveling to North America in 1100 would have taken just under 400 years, because even though people had known the diameter of the planet since Eratosthenes calculated it 1200 years earlier, no one in Europe knew anything lay between there and India heading west, and anyway ship technology wouldn't allow it save for that one time Leiv Erikson got blown off course trying to bring Christianity to Greenland. Erikson barely made it back, remember. Since 1969, if you have a whole week you can go to the moon and back. If you merely want to reach any other point on Earth, there are four commercial air-transport airplane models (A350, A380, B777, B787) that can get you there in under 20 hours with one fuel stop. (In theory, a ballistic missile could get you there in 40 minutes or less, but they haven't quite worked out how to land one safely.)

In 1100, political philosophy tended towards systems of government we generally find unacceptable today: feudalism, theocracy, absolute monarchy. Superstition and violently-enforced tradition mixed religion and politics to a level only seen today in groups we call "extreme right" like the Taliban. Think, for a moment, how representative democracy with universal suffrage would have seemed to even a well-educated person living 115 years before the Magna Carta gave limited rights to an hereditary aristocracy. His head would explode. And I do mean his, as European women weren't generally allowed formal education until the 18th Century. Women couldn't even own property in most places before then. Several things we consider horrible crimes in the 21st century wouldn't even raise an eyebrow in 1100. Beating your wife or child? Your family, your business. Torturing a prisoner to death? Expected. Killing your neighbor for taking a deer on your land? Well, if it's "your land," that means you own land, which means you're the local political power, which gives you all manner of rights over people living on it. Raping the newlywed bride of one of your neighbors is one of those rights, for instance.

I was going to write that "In 1100, the average naval officer wouldn't even understand the concepts of suffrage or democracy," but I realized that in 1100 they wouldn't even understand the concept of "naval officer." In 1100, the concept of "admiral" (in Arabic, "amir-al-bahr:" "lord of the seas") had just reached Europe, and ships had captains as a job but not as a grade. The idea of a formal, dedicated officer corps with fixed grades was still centuries off. The United States Navy had only the ranks of Admiral, Captain, and Lieutenant as late as 1860 when they introduced the rank that eventually became Commander. The 10-grade system we use in NATO countries today is from the 1980s.

In 1100, every government that existed eventually changed form or disappeared. Only one European quasi-governmental institution that existed then still exists in a similar form today: the Catholic Church. Not only have all the other governments that existed in Europe back then vanished, most of the political units have disappeared or changed unrecognizably as well. England arguably has the oldest continuous system of government in Europe, which goes all the way back to...the Act of Settlement in 1707. In the Star Trek universe, the United Federation of Planets was only 100 years old when Discovery slipped into the future, and it was founded only 80 years after most existing Earth governments blew themselves out of existence. So why would any of Discovery's crew, to whom First Contact with the Vulcans was more recent for them than the American Revolution is to us, find it at all surprising that the Federation has all but vanished 900 years later?

So the gulf between 1100 and 2020 is huge. But the gulf between 2259 and 3189 would be far, far larger, because we only recently learned how to innovate on purpose.

In 1100, technology advanced slowly. Pick a European country: 1100 looked almost identical to 900 and 1200. Even fashions remained the same decade after decade. The pace of technological change we live with today started gaining speed with the Enlightenment of the mid-18th century. The ideas that drive modern technology have surprisingly recent origins. Mass-produced books? Johannes Gutenberg, 1452. Modern written English? Mid 1600s. Steam-powered vehicles? James Watt, 1776. Permanent republican form of government? New Hampshire, 1776. Modern patent law? United States Congress, 1790. Light-speed communications? Samuel Morse's telegraph, 1836. First modern sewerage system? James Newlands in Liverpool, 1848. Voice communications? Alexander Bell, 1876. Formal industrial R&D and the electric light bulb? Thomas Edison, 1880s. Universal adult suffrage? New Zealand, 1893. Line-of-sight wireless communications? Enrico Marconi's radio, 1901. Airplanes? Orville and Wilbur Wright, 1903. Synthetic plastic? Leo Baekeland, 1907. Television? John Baird, 1925. Antibiotics? Alexander Fleming, 1928. Controlled nuclear reactions? Enrico Fermi, 1942. Digital computers? ENIAC, 1946. Integrated circuits and microchips? Jack Kilby, 1958. Computer-aided design? Ivan Sutherland, 1963. Geostationary communication satellites? Syncom 3, 1964. The Internet? US Defense Department, 1971. The World Wide Web? Tim Berners-Lee, 1990. The Daily Parker? May 1998. Google? August 1998.

All of those technologies accelerated the development of newer technologies. In some cases, technologies led to the discovery of principles that couldn't be imagined without practical experience with them—for example, how synthesizing a polymer in 1907 and creating a working radio in 1901 are both required before you can understand that an integrated circuit is even possible, let alone how to mass-produce a billion-transistor microchip.

The worlds of 1100 and 1800 would have been mutually comprehensible (though starting around 1700, politics, religion, and hair styles would seem stranger by the year), but the worlds of 1800 and 1900 would not. Someone from 1900 would probably understand the world of 2020, but that's because by the late 19th century people started to intuit Clarke's Three Laws (1962), so they would universally attribute modern technologies to artifice rather than magic.

That's on Earth. In the Star Trek universe, technological advances happened across hundreds of civilizations, with trade between them bringing everyone up to higher levels even faster. Humans independently invented warp drive in 2063; but the Vulcans who landed in Montana after detecting Zefram Cochrane's warp signature eventually shared technologies that humans had only imagined before. (Peaceful) trade and communication between cultures accelerates development in both.

So to sum up: Discovery popping into the late 32nd century should have even less success integrating into its new surroundings than a Viking longboat popping into 2020. They should find themselves in a universe with not just advanced technology, but totally incomprehensible technology; a universe protected by armaments that consider Discovery's weapons practically harmless—including its photon torpedoes, which can sterilize entire planets; a universe where no one save a few academics understands a word they're saying; a universe where all but fringe extremists find their views on politics and social norms not just embarrassing, but horrifying and immoral; and a universe where childhood diseases from either culture could kill millions in the other.

That said, it's not a bad show. Episode 7 drops tonight.