The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Sure Happy It's Thursday! Earth Day edition

Happy 51st Earth Day! In honor of that, today's first story has nothing to do with Earth:

Finally, it looks like I'll have some really cool news to share about my own software in just a couple of weeks. Stay tuned!

Wait, what?

The United States Postal Service has a surveillance program that tracks social media posts for law enforcement, and no one can say why:

The details of the surveillance effort, known as iCOP, or Internet Covert Operations Program, have not previously been made public. The work involves having analysts trawl through social media sites to look for what the document describes as “inflammatory” postings and then sharing that information across government agencies.

“Analysts with the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP) monitored significant activity regarding planned protests occurring internationally and domestically on March 20, 2021,” says the March 16 government bulletin, marked as “law enforcement sensitive” and distributed through the Department of Homeland Security’s fusion centers. “Locations and times have been identified for these protests, which are being distributed online across multiple social media platforms, to include right-wing leaning Parler and Telegram accounts.”

When contacted by Yahoo News, civil liberties experts expressed alarm at the post office’s surveillance program. “It’s a mystery,” said University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone, whom President Barack Obama appointed to review the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks. “I don’t understand why the government would go to the Postal Service for examining the internet for security issues.”

I mean, scraping social media takes only a modicum of technical skills. In the last year I've written software that can scan Twitter and run detailed sentiment analysis on keyword-based searches. But I'm not a government agency with arrest powers. Or, you know, a constitutional mandate to deliver the mail.

Weird.

Meanwhile, in my neighborhood

The Chicago Transit Authority will demolish my local El station starting May 16th, kicking off a 4-year, $2.1 bn project to rebuild the Red and Purple Lines from Lawrence to Bryn Mawr. Good thing we have an alternative only 400 meters away:

Crews will begin the demolition work on the project’s northern end at Ardmore Avenue and work south, CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said. The construction zone spans from Ardmore Avenue to Leland Avenue.

The Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn and Bryn Mawr stations will close May 16. Temporary stations at Argyle and Bryn Mawr will open that day, according to the CTA.

Crews will also demolish the northbound Red and Purple line tracks between Lawrence and Bryn Mawr. That will include the demolition of 1.5 miles of embankment wall and 11 bridges that span east-west streets in Uptown and Edgewater.

Demolition and the rebuilding of the eastern portion of the tracks is scheduled to wrap up in late 2022, according to the CTA.

From there, work on the western portion of the tracks will commence. This second stage of work will include the construction of the four new stations, which are slated to be opened in 2024.

It's so nice, now that Bruce Rauner has left Springfield, that public works projects can resume. It even looks like we'll have a new Chicago-bound train station at Ravenswood before too long.

Guilty

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is, officially, a felon and a murderer. The jury deliberated for longer than 9 minutes and 28 seconds, but not much longer.

Good luck in gen pop, you racist thug.

Some reactions:

  • Barack Obama: "[I]f we’re being honest with ourselves, we know that true justice is about much more than a single verdict in a single trial."
  • Jennifer Rubin: "Tuesday’s verdict, which is likely to be appealed, does not mean the overarching problem of racism in policing is resolved."
  • US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY): "That a family had to lose a son, brother and father; that a teenage girl had to film and post a murder, that millions across the country had to organize and march just for George Floyd to be seen and valued is not justice."
  • Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY): "I'm thankful for George Floyd’s family that justice was served. America was forever changed by the video of Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd. However, a guilty verdict doesn’t mean the persistent problem of police misconduct is solved. We'll keep working for meaningful change"
  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY): ""
  • Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA): "George Floyd should be alive today. His family’s calls for justice for his murder were heard around the world. He did not die in vain. We must make sure other families don't suffer the same racism, violence & pain, and we must enact the George Floyd #JusticeInPolicing Act."
  • House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA): ""
  • Andy Borowitz: "Chauvin’s Defense Team Blames Guilty Verdict on Jury’s Ability To See"
  • The Onion: "‘This Is Strike One, Mr. Chauvin,’ Says Judge Reading Guilty Verdict Before Handing Gun, Badge Back"

We have a long way to go. But maybe, just maybe, this is a start, and not an aberration.

Quite an anniversary

Today I learned that the office of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom took its modern form 300 years ago this month, when Sir Robert Walpole took office as First Lord of the Treasury on 4 April 1721.

Of course, this being the UK, governed more by tradition and custom than a founding document like nearly every other country on Earth, it gets a bit fuzzier on investigation. The office of First Lord of the Treasury dates back to 1126, when King Henry I appointed Nigel, Bishop of Ely, his Lord High Treasurer. The office morphed into First Lord of the Treasury in 1714 when Charles Montagu, First Earl Halifax, assumed the post.

But when Walpole took the brief for the second time in 1721 (he also held the post from 1715 to 1717), King George I granted him emergency powers to stabilize the country after the South Sea Company's collapse in 1720. He not only handled the emergency, but he also managed to make the office part of the constitutional framework of UK governance. It would take until 1937 for UK law to recognize the office of Prime Minister formally.

Biggest aviation news since 1903

This morning, around 2:30 Chicago time, we flew an aircraft over an alien planet:

At about 3:30 a.m., the twin, carbon-fiber rotor blades began spinning furiously, and the chopper, called Ingenuity, lifted off the surface of the Red Planet, reaching an altitude of about 10 feet, where it hovered, turned and landed softly in an autonomous flight that lasted just 30 seconds, the space agency said.

Inside the flight operations center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, engineers broke into applause when confirmation of the flight arrived, more than three hours after the flight, in a data burst that traveled 178 million miles from Mars to Earth.

To make the brief flight, Ingenuity’s technology had to overcome Mars’s super-thin atmosphere — just 1 percent the density of Earth’s — which makes it more difficult for the helicopters’ blades, spinning at about 2,500 revolutions per minute, to generate lift.

As President Biden once said, this is a big fucking deal.

One video done for today...

...and I still have another one to do, though I'm not sure if today's the day for it.

This year, the Apollo Chorus of Chicago annual benefit cabaret/fundraiser Apollo After Hours will once again go virtual, necessitating a lot more individual work and a lot less fun than doing it in person. I've just completed the easier of the two songs I need to record by yesterday. With rehearsing it, learning it, recording the audio, setting up the video, and uploading the audio and video files to Google Drive for our editor, it only took me...about two hours. The song runs 2:15; I sang only 21 bars out of 81, for about 40 seconds of singing; so the ratio of work to performance is about 50:1—including the 3 minutes where I videoed myself lip-synching to the accompaniment track and smiling benificently.

For comparison, we rehearse Händel's 2½-hour oratorio Messiah for about 12 hours total, for a 5:1 ratio.

And we have one more recording to do after After Hours, which I'll describe as we get closer to the "performance" date. Once that is in the can, I don't care if we have another pandemic, I'm never doing one of these again.

But hey, After Hours will be fun!

Supposes Moses was an Asshat

Not Moishe, the mythological figure; Moses, the all-too-real figure in New York City history. I'm about halfway through Robert Caro's biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, and I want to dig Moses up and punch him in the face.

The thing about really intelligent narcissists is they can, in fact, get their way, even when—especially when—they encounter real criticism. The crowning achievement of Moses' narcissism might be the West Side Improvement, comprising the West Side Highway and Henry Hudson Parkway, which run along the Hudson River from the top of Manhattan Island to the bottom. The story of how and why Moses built it where he built it takes up about 40 pages of the book, but Caro sums it up starting at the bottom of page 565:

Robert Moses had spent $109,000,000 [in 1938, worth $2.05 billion in 2021] of the public's money on the West Side Improvement. Counting the money expended on his advice by other city agencies on the portion of the Improvement south of Seventy-second Street, the Improvement had cost the public more than $200,000,000 [$3.8 billion in 2021].

But the total cost of the Improvement cannot be reckoned merely in dollars. The West Side Improvement also cost the people of New York City their most majestic waterfront, their most majestic forest, a unique residential community, and their last fresh-water marsh.

When the Improvement was finished, all these things were gone forever.

Adding them to the cost of the West Side Improvement, one might wonder if the Improvement had not cost New York City more than it was worth. Adding them into the cost, one might wonder if the West Side Improvement was really, on its total balance sheet, an "improvement" at all. One might wonder if it was not, on balance, a tragic and irremediable loss.

In the pages leading up to that conclusion, Caro spends some time discussing how the park Moses built along highway stopped at 125th Street. From there up to 155th Street, instead of a park, the African-American residents of Harlem got an elevated highway, with one little playground whose finishes included little monkey carvings on the stonework. You will not be surprised to learn that no other park in the project had a monkey motif.

Another thing, of which I can almost excuse him, was Moses' complete rejection of evidence of "induced demand," how increasing road capacity also increases congestion at a faster rate. That is, if you double road capacity, you will more than double the number of cars on the road. I can almost excuse him because traffic planners still ignore this phenomenon much of the time.

So halfway through the book I'm only at the end of 1938. We still have 25 years or so before Moses meets Jane Jacobs—and according to the index, Caro doesn't even cover that.

The American Republic

I'm sure I must have read this when it came out, but I have just (re-?)read Andrew Sullivan's 2019 essay "Our Caesar," just to refresh my sadness at the parallels between early-21st-century America and early-2nd-century-BCE Rome:

It’s impossible to review the demise of the Roman Republic and not be struck by the parallel dynamics in America in 2019. We now live, as the Romans did, in an economy of massive wealth increasingly monopolized by the very rich, in which the whole notion of principled public service has been eclipsed by the pursuit of private wealth and reality-show fame. Cynicism about the system is endemic, as in Rome. The concept of public service has evaporated as swiftly as trust in government had collapsed. When the republican virtues of a Robert Mueller collided this year with the populist pathologies of Donald Trump, we saw how easily a culture that gave us Cicero could turn into a culture that gave us Caesar.

Some argue that although the president has obviously attempted to break the law many times and lies with pathological abandon, he still hasn’t openly defied a court order, suspended an election, or authorized something as lawless as torture. He talks and walks like a dictator, but in practice, his incompetence and inability to focus or plan or even read saves us. That, it seems to me, misses three things. The first is the president’s rhetoric. What happened to the Roman republic was a slow slide into public illegitimacy, intensified by the way in which elites played by the rules only when it suited them and broke precedents and norms when it came to defending their own interests, complaining loudly when others did the same.

If republican virtues and liberal democratic values are a forest of traditions and norms, Trump has created a vast and expanding clearing. What Rome’s experience definitively shows is that once this space is cleared, even if it is not immediately filled, some day it will be. Someone shrewder, more ruthless, focused, and competent, can easily exploit the wider vista for authoritarianism. Or Trump himself, more liberated than ever in a second term, huffing the fumes of his own power, could cross a Rubicon for which he has prepared us all.

It took about 200 years and unending civil war for the Roman Republic to become the Roman Empire. How much time have we got?

Thursday evening post

Some stories in the news this week:

Finally, the House Oversight and Reform Committee advanced DC statehood legislation. The full house may even pass the DC Admission Act next week.