The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Catching up at home

New Zealand's prime minister, Jacinda Arden, just resigned unexpectedly, which is a much more surprising story than any of these I queued up:

Finally, I'm glad to discover that ibuprofen may be more effective than acetaminophen for treating tension headaches, so I will now take one.

Let's acknowledge this is weird

I just got an alert that the outside temperature at my house went above 10°C:

It's mid-January, and my house in Chicago is only 2°C cooler than San Francisco. (O'Hare is only 1°C cooler.)

Maybe I have the wrong attitude. Chicago will likely have its 2nd or 3rd warmest January in history, followed by a warm and lovely spring, with flowers and sunshine for all. So I should just enjoy it. Cassie sure is.

I keep saying that the decently-governed city whose winters have gotten remarkably better in my lifetime next to the largest source of fresh water in the country will, as I've predicted for years, become a pretty good place to live in a 2°C-warmer environment. After all, a 10°C HVAC delta between inside and outside in July is less costly than a 40°C delta in February. (Seriously, if you like the idea of having unlimited fresh water to drink and only a few days a year with weather that can kill you, move to Chicago.)

And yet, I'm solidly Generation X. We learned from a young age that when things seem way better than we expected, they'll average out with a vengeance soon enough.

Sure, Chicago has a better chance of success than any other city its size over the next 100 years. But tens of millions will die worldwide and hundreds of millions will have to move after the first pulse. Then we'll have another pulse. Then a third. When my nephews' grandchildren explore the world, they'll volunteer on farms in Greenland and surf beaches outside Raleigh, and they might be the last people who taste real maple syrup.

If I found a djinn, my first wish might be that people worldwide understand that, if we continue to deny how much we're affecting the world, we'll only have a few places (like Chicago) that people will want to live in. If only that were enough. 

You can't buy labor at below-market rates

Chicago Transit Authority president Dorval Carter, Jr., blamed "extremely higher-than-normal call-offs" (i.e., a blue flu) for the New Year's Eve failures that left The Daily Parker waiting on a platform 35 minutes for the El:

It’s not unusual for CTA workers to “call off” on holidays, but the CTA has in the past been ready to replace them. But this year, with a shortage of train operators in the ranks, the CTA couldn’t deliver the number of free trains it promised.

The CTA promoted increased service on the Blue and Red lines on New Year’s Eve, advertising free train rides sponsored by Miller Lite. Carter did not say how many workers called off, and CTA officials did not provide a number after Friday’s meeting.

CTA worker unions, represented by Local 308 and Local 241, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

Carter said he would work with the unions and employees to come up with better ways to incentivize staff to come to work. Disciplinary measures could only go so far, considering the worker shortage, he said.

“We are operating very close to the margins,” Carter said. “I am trying to both put out a level of service that is within the constraints of the workforce that I have, but recognizing that in order for that to work, my workforce has to show up.”

One factor possibly limiting the available workforce: wages that have not kept up with inflation. If you want more people to work for you, pay more; QED. But even Chicago, with one of the best transport networks in the world, still struggles to see public transit as a public service rather than a profit-making enterprise. So who should pay more for the CTA? All of us in Chicago, perhaps by taking back some of the Federal money we send to Oklahoma for their useless freeway projects.

At least I didn't get too cold on the Brown Line platform on New Year's Eve. I still would have liked to see my friends earlier than I did.

Another step in the slow decline of an empire

The United States once had the best universities in the world. Maybe we still do, to an extent. Most empires, in their primes, have them. But in every culture, some people simply don't (or can't) understand the benefits of learning for its own sake. In the waning days of empire, when politics drifts farther from governing and closer to self-dealing, people who do understand why we need great universities nevertheless see political advantage in pretending we don't.

In the last week I've seen three unrelated articles about this symptom of American decline, from three different perspectives, that make me thing the United States has another century or so before we no longer have the tools or the will to remain the shining beacon on the hill we have always fancied ourselves.

First, Tom Nichols provides a snapshot of one university where the students exercise so much control over the curriculum that they have shut themselves off from real learning:

Unless you follow academic politics, you might have missed the recent controversy at Hamline University, a small private college in St. Paul, Minnesota. The short version is that a professor named Erika López Prater showed students in her global-art-history class a 14th-century painting depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Aware that many Muslims regard such images as sacrilege, she warned ahead of time that she was going to show the picture and offered to excuse any student who did not want to view it.

Professor López Prater’s contract has not been renewed, and she will not be returning to the classroom. The university strenuously denies that she was fired. Of course, colleges let adjuncts go all the time, often reluctantly. But this, to me, seems like something more.

The “rights” of students were not jeopardized, and no curriculum owes a “debt” to any student’s “traditions, beliefs, and views.” (Indeed, if you don’t want your traditions, beliefs, or views challenged, then don’t come to a university, at least not to study anything in the humanities or the social sciences.) Miller’s view, it seems, is that academic freedom really only means as much freedom as your most sensitive students can stand, an irresponsible position that puts the university, the classroom, and the careers of scholars in the hands of students who are inexperienced in the subject matter, new to academic life, and, often, still in the throes of adolescence.

The consumer-driven view of academia weakens institutions from within. Which works just fine if you're an ethnic entrepreneur who wants to squelch critical thinking and has the power to destroy an entire state's university system from without:

New College is undoubtedly a liberal enclave: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis carried Sarasota County by over 20 points in November, and two months earlier a slate of MAGA candidates won a local school board election with support from the Proud Boys. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that the school would find itself in the crosshairs of DeSantis’s ongoing neo-McCarthyite crusade. On Friday morning, DeSantis announced six appointees to the New School board of trustees. Of the six, the three most eye-catching are Christopher Rufo, who’s risen to notoriety as one of the best-known voices inveighing against “critical race theory” and stoking back-in-vogue incendiary anti-LGBTQ rhetoric; Charles Kesler, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, a far-right think tank; and Matthew Spalding, a professor of government at Michigan’s Hillsdale College, a deeply conservative private Christian college that both Rufo and DeSantis’s chief of staff explicitly held up as a model for the Florida school.

There’s no better avatar than Rufo for DeSantis’s ambitions to make Florida “where woke goes to die.” In his demagogic campaign to “lay siege to the universities,” Rufo has relentlessly pursued a series of “educational gag orders” in a number of states that have sought to forbid professors from discussing certain topics related to race, gender, and sexuality. In October, he also appeared to celebrate a targeted campaign against one such professor: When a University of Chicago undergrad-cum-conservative-influencer unleashed a wave of rape and death threats on an adjunct professor who was set to teach a winter course on “The Problem of Whiteness,” Rufo praised the student’s “excellent work” after he took to Twitter to brag about getting the class canceled. (In reality, the class was postponed to allow for time to institute safety precautions.) That student is now the national chairman of “Students for Ye,” a far-right youth organization dedicated to a Kanye West presidency.

So what is driving these appointments? “You’re attacking such a small school with these kids who are really brilliant, and which has a high proportion of students who have faced backlash just to who they are,” [New College alumnus Derek] Black said. “For almost everybody I’ve ever known who went to New College, it was [a place where] you can figure out who you are, you can share that with your peers, and you can find a group of people who are going to make you a space where you can explore that and feel comfortable with it. I have a lot of trouble seeing this announcement as anything other than feeling uncomfortable with students being able to just feel like they don’t have to uphold any sort of traditional identity.”

Republican Florida governor Ron DeSantis—who very well could get sworn in as President two years and five days from now—gets a win no matter how the New College battle goes. Either he destroys the college completely, making it that much less likely to find effective critical thought in Florida, or New College survives, but as a huge target for attacks on "wokeness."

Finally, we have an op-ed in this morning's Times from historian Daniel Bessner, sounding the alarm about the decline of humanities study because people don't see its value:

[O]nly 27 percent of those who received a Ph.D. in history in 2017 were employed as tenure track professors four years later. The work of historians has been “de-professionalized,” and people like myself, who have tenure track jobs, will be increasingly rare in coming years. This is true for all academic fields, not just history. As Adrianna Kezar, Tom DePaola and Daniel T. Scott note in their book “The Gig Academy,” about 70 percent of all college professors work off the tenure track. The majority of these professors make less than $3,500 per course, according to a 2020 report by the American Federation of Teachers. Jobs that used to allow professors to live middle-class lives now barely enable them to keep their heads above water.

What is to blame? In the past generation the American university has undergone a drastic transformation. To reduce costs, university administrators have dramatically reduced tenure. And as the protections of tenure have withered away, the size of nonteaching university staffs have exploded. Between 1976 and 2018, “full-time administrators and other professionals employed by those institutions increased by 164 percent and 452 percent, respectively,” according to a 2021 paper on the topic. Professors have been sacrificed on the altar of vice deans.

At the same time, in an effort to fund research that might redound to their financial benefit and to demonstrate their pragmatic value to politicians and to the public, universities have emphasized science, technology, engineering and math at the expense of the humanities. As the American Academy of Arts and Sciences reported, citing data from 2019, “spending for humanities research equaled 0.7 percent of the amount dedicated to STEM R.&D.”

Entire areas of our shared history will never be known because no one will receive a living wage to uncover and study them. It’s implausible to expect scholars with insecure jobs to offer bold and innovative claims about history when they can easily be fired for doing so. Instead, history will be studied increasingly by the wealthy, which is to say those able to work without pay. It’s easy to see how this could lead American historical scholarship to adopt a pro-status-quo bias. In today’s world, if you don’t have access to elite networks, financial resources or both, it just doesn’t make sense to pursue a career in history. In the future, history won’t just be written by the victors; it’ll also be written by the well-to-do.

As a historian, Bessner knows that this has happened before, and knows what happened afterward.

The dark ages from the fall of the Western Roman Empire until the early medieval period saw Europe slip from the center of literature, art, and architecture, into an intellectual backwater ridiculed in the great universities of the Arab world. It took a thousand years for Europe to recover. Fortunately, the rest of the world moved on. But Europeans endured centuries of intellectual stagnation and religious repression until the hidden repositories of knowledge finally peeked out of the darkness in the 11th and 12th centuries.

The founders of the United States hoped they could create a country with all the best parts of Rome and none of the worst parts. I only wish they'd had more accurate histories of the Roman Empire so they could have seen how valuable learning for its own sake actually was.

Of course they knew

As we in Chicago enjoy (?) the 12th consecutive day with above-normal temperatures, and look forward to another 10 at least, it turns out ExxonMobil's own scientists predicted global temperature rises 40 years ago:

In the late 1970s, scientists at Exxon fitted one of the company’s supertankers with state-of-the-art equipment to measure carbon dioxide in the ocean and in the air, an early example of substantial research the oil giant conducted into the science of climate change.

A new study published Thursday in the journal Science found that over the next decades, Exxon’s scientists made remarkably accurate projections of just how much burning fossil fuels would warm the planet. Their projections were as accurate, and sometimes even more so, as those of independent academic and government models.

Yet for years, the oil giant publicly cast doubt on climate science, and cautioned against any drastic move away from burning fossil fuels, the main driver of climate change. Exxon also ran a public relations program — including ads that ran in The New York Times — emphasizing uncertainties in the scientific research on global warming.

In the new study, Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes of Harvard, and Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute, carried out a quantitative analysis of global warming projections made or recorded by Exxon scientists between 1977 and 2003.

Those records, which include internal memos and peer-reviewed papers published with outside academic researchers, make up the largest public collection of global warming projections recorded by a single company, the authors said.

Overall, Exxon’s global warming projections closely tracked subsequent temperature increases of around 0.2 degrees Celsius of global warming per decade, the study found.

The company’s scientists, in fact, excluded the possibility that human-caused global warming was not occurring, the researchers found.

And yet, people still believe businesses that tout research favorable to their own interests. Does this remind you of anything?

Waiting for customer service

I'm on hold with my bank trying to sort out a transaction they seem to have deleted. I've also just sorted through a hundred or so stories in our project backlog, so while I'm mulling over the next 6 months of product development, I will read these:

And my bank's customer service finally got back to me with the sad news that the thing I wanted them to fix was, and we are so sorry, it turns out, your fault. Fie.

My office is still and here

In a form of enlightened laziness, I often go into my company's downtown Chicago office on Friday and the following Monday, avoiding the inconvenience of taking my laptop home. It helps also that Fridays and Mondays have become the quietest days of the week, with most return-to-office workers heading in Tuesdays through Thursdays.

And after a productive morning, I have a few things to read at lunch:

Finally, National Geographic digs down to find explanations for the disappearances of five ancient cities, and what that might tell us about our own culture.

More black smoke

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has lost his seventh bid for Speaker—nope, eighthwhile Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) has amassed more cumulative votes for the office than anyone except Sam Rayburn. Things in the House have become surreal, even without a bad lip reading for levity. As Tom Nichols puts it,

What all of these GOP members do seem to have in common is a shared belief that they should be in Congress in order to make other people miserable. Usually, those “other people” are Democrats and various people on the generic right-wing enemies list, but lately, the targets include the few remaining Republicans who think their job in Washington is to legislate and pass bills and other boring twaddle that has nothing to do with keeping the hometown folks in a lather, getting on television, and getting reelected.

And yet, the XPOTUS remains absent from the proceedings, with both sides of the Republican Party basically ignoring him. His "wishes, feelings, threats, anger and really anything else about him are just completely absent from this entire drama. In a way that is the biggest story here."

Meanwhile, back in the real world:

Finally, the most recent defense authorization bill the outgoing Congress passed last week included a provision promoting Ulysses S Grant to General of the Armies. Only George Washington and John J Pershing have held that rank (O-11).

The definition of insanity

Six times in the last two days, the House has tried to elect a Speaker. In each attempt, no fewer than 19 right-wing crazies refused to vote for Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), meaning that Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries has gotten a plurality of the vote every time. Naturally, they'll try again in a few hours. Naturally, they'll fail again soon after.

Make no mistake: the right-wing crazies have no problem with the richest country in the history of the world operating without a functioning legislature.

In a completely unrelated story, researchers discovered an ant colony trapped in an abandoned Soviet nuclear bunker in Poland that has no queen and no hope of escape:

The wood-ant ‘colony’ described here – although superficially looking like a functioning colony with workers teeming on the surface of the mound – is rather an example of survival of a large amount of workers trapped within a hostile environment in total darkness, with constantly low temperatures and no ample supply of food. The continued survival of the ‘colony’ through the years is dependent on new workers falling in through the ventilation pipe. The supplement of workers more than compensates for the mortality rate of workers such that through the years the bunker workforce has grown to the level of big, mature natural colonies.

Sounds so familiar, and yet...

Still no Speaker

The House will probably elect a Speaker before the end of March, so we probably won't set any records for majority-party dickery before the Congress even starts. (We might for what the 118th Congress does, though.) But with three ballots down and the guy who thought he'd get the job unable to get the last 19 votes he needs, it might take a few days.

Meanwhile:

Finally, a ground crew worker at Montgomery Airport in Alabama fell into a running jet engine on Saturday; the NTSB is investigating. Yecch.