The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

MH370: Epitaph

William Langewiesche, a pilot and journalist, has examined some of the worst air disasters in modern history. I read Fly By Wire in an hour and a half. His reporting on the demolition of the World Trade Center is legendary.

In the upcoming issue of The Atlantic, Langewiesche assembles the best evidence we have about the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 on 8 March 2014. It's a must-read for anyone interested in aviation:

Primary radar relies on simple, raw pings off objects in the sky. Air-traffic-control systems use what is known as secondary radar. It depends on a transponder signal that is transmitted by each airplane and contains richer information—for instance, the airplane’s identity and altitude—than primary radar does. Five seconds after MH370 crossed into Vietnamese airspace, the symbol representing its transponder dropped from the screens of Malaysian air traffic control, and 37 seconds later the entire airplane disappeared from secondary radar. The time was 1:21 a.m., 39 minutes after takeoff. The controller in Kuala Lumpur was dealing with other traffic elsewhere on his screen and simply didn’t notice. When he finally did, he assumed that the airplane was in the hands of Ho Chi Minh, somewhere out beyond his range.

The Vietnamese controllers, meanwhile, saw MH370 cross into their airspace and then disappear from radar. They apparently misunderstood a formal agreement by which Ho Chi Minh was supposed to inform Kuala Lumpur immediately if an airplane that had been handed off was more than five minutes late checking in. They tried repeatedly to contact the aircraft, to no avail. By the time they picked up the phone to inform Kuala Lumpur, 18 minutes had passed since MH370’s disappearance from their radar screens. What ensued was an exercise in confusion and incompetence. Kuala Lumpur’s Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre should have been notified within an hour of the disappearance. By 2:30 a.m., it still had not been. Four more hours elapsed before an emergency response was finally begun, at 6:32 a.m.

The mystery surrounding MH370 has been a focus of continued investigation and a source of sometimes feverish public speculation. The loss devastated families on four continents. The idea that a sophisticated machine, with its modern instruments and redundant communications, could simply vanish seems beyond the realm of possibility. It is hard to permanently delete an email, and living off the grid is nearly unachievable even when the attempt is deliberate. A Boeing 777 is meant to be electronically accessible at all times. The disappearance of the airplane has provoked a host of theories. Many are preposterous. All are given life by the fact that, in this age, commercial airplanes don’t just vanish.

This one did, and more than five years later its precise whereabouts remain unknown. Even so, a great deal about the disappearance of MH370 has come into clearer view, and reconstructing much of what happened that night is possible. The cockpit voice recorder and the flight-data recorder may never be recovered, but what we still need to know is unlikely to come from the black boxes. Instead, it will have to come from Malaysia.

What follows should give anyone who cares about functioning institutions pause. Langewiesche doesn't so much indict the Malaysian government for incompetence as simply lay out the facts and let the reader decide, a la Robert Mueller. Example:

For all its expensive equipment, the air force had failed at its job and could not bring itself to admit the fact. In an Australian television interview, the former Malaysian defense minister said, “If you’re not going to shoot it down, what’s the point in sending [an interceptor] up?” Well, for one thing, you could positively identify the airplane, which at this point was just a blip on primary radar. You could also look through the windows into the cockpit and see who was at the controls.

Had MH370 belonged to (or flown out of) a functioning, institutional government, we might actually have found it and known what happened.

Langewiesche alone should give you enough reason to subscribe to The Atlantic. Grab this month's issue and see so many others.

Ribfest 2019 after-munching report

This year, I went whole hog and got a 3-day pass to Chicago's main Ribfest. So this past weekend, I had a lot of ribs.

First, I should note that on days 2 and 3 I took friends. This is important because if you share four 3-bone samplers with someone you don't feel like you ate an entire pig as you stagger home from the event. Or five samplers. Not that I ate that many ribs on Friday...maybe.

Second, the weather Saturday and Sunday ranged from cool and damp to cool and rainy. Between that and arriving Friday evening just after opening, I didn't see the balls-to-the-wall crowds that I've usually encountered. Here's Saturday evening, after the rain stopped:

Contrast with, for example, 2013:

(Parker, having just turned 13, didn't go this year, poor old dog.)

Having three days, I got to try a lot of ribs:

  • City BBQ, locations in Downers Grove and Orland Park: smoked, tug off the bone, firm meat; original sauce was sweet-tangy, "brush fire" sauce was a little spicier. Not great, 2½ stars.
  • Austin Texas Lightning (two visits), itinerant: Smoked for 4 hours, then grilled. Tangy original sauce, good kick on the spicy one. Tasty meat but a lot of salt. Not bad. 3 stars.
  • Famous Dave's, national chain: Pretty good meat, tug-off-the-bone; sauces all right, sauces OK but with lots of HFCS, so I have to ding them for that. 2½ stars.
  • Fireside Grill (two visits), right in my neighborhood: tug off the bone, good crunchy finish on the grill, ladled-on sauce with good spice and flavor. My favorite from Friday. 3½ stars; will visit soon.
  • Big Joe's Backyard BBQ, Homer Glen, Ill.: Dry meat, overcooked; sauces was eh, way too sweet. Good-sized bones. 2½ stars.
  • Base Hit BBQ (two visits), Austin neighborhood of Chicago: Fall-off-the-bone, really tasty meat, nice char, excellent sauce. My favorite from this year's Fest. Worth a trip out to the West Side. 4 stars.
  • Mrs Murphy and Sons Irish Bistro, Chicago: My favorite from years past, and still good, but their sauce tasted sweeter to me this year (which is not a good thing for my palette). Fall off the bone meat, really tasty. 3 stars.

On Sunday I also stopped by itinerant Chicago BBQ, which was just as itinerant as in years past, and just as acceptable. 3 stars.

Now: was the $100 3-day pass a good deal? It came with $50 in food tickets (which I used, and then some, because 3-bone samplers cost $8), free entry to the festival (a $30 value), skip-to-the-front access for drinks (saved some time), and air conditioned bathrooms (nice to have with their real soap and running water). I will probably do it again next year, especially if we have a hot June, which will make the cooler bathrooms maybe worth $20.

But before that, on July 4th, I'll bring Parker to the Windy City Ribfest less than 400 meters from my front door.

Big milestone today

Is it that I set a new personal record for steps, getting over 15,000 every day for the last 11? Nope.

Is it that, for only the second time in three years, I got enough sleep four nights in a row? Nope.

Is it that Parker turns 13 today? Yup.

And just check out his fashionable birthday present:

For comparison, here he is 10 years ago:

Between Iraq and a hard place

The Daily Parker will have a bit of activity today, so let me get the two political stories out of the way immediately.

First, Josh Marshall points out a yuge consequence of President Trump's constant lying: people have a hard time believing the administration's claim that Iran had anything to do with the attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. He connects the dots:

[Y]ou don’t need to assume irrationality or perfidy on the part of the Iranians for them to be behind this. We had a deal with the Iranians backed by all the global powers. We broke the agreement and are now trying to strangle the Iranian economy with new sanctions. By historical standards those actions are reasonably understood to be acts of war. Low level attacks on commercial shipping just under the level that might trigger direct US retaliation has a clear logic to it.

On the other hand, pretty much every regional adversary has a strong incentive to mount some kind of false flag operation, or rush to blame the Iranians. At least a couple have recent histories of reckless, high-risk gambits to advance their perceived goals. The obvious player here is Saudi Arabia and its de facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman. Others seem possible as well.

US claims are further undermined by statements from the owner of the Japanese tanker. The President of the company didn’t dispute or validate the US accusations about who was at fault but contradicted how the US claims the attack happened. The US says it was a mine. The tanker owner said it was a flying object (presumably a missile or projectile of some sort) which had an impact entirely above the ship’s waterline. That doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the US version of events.

The truth is all the players involved have huge incentives to lie. And a few of them have very recent histories of the most flagrant falsehoods and dirty tricks on an international scale.

Second, the Atlantic's Adam Serwer bemoans the right wing trend to abandon democracy when they lose their arguments:

The tide of illiberalism sweeping over Western countries and the election of Donald Trump have since renewed hope among some on the religious right that it might revive its cultural control through the power of the state. Inspired by Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Vladimir Putin in Russia, a faction of the religious right now looks to sectarian ethno-nationalism to restore its beliefs to their rightful primacy, and to rescue a degraded and degenerate culture. All that stands in their way is democracy, and the fact that most Americans reject what they have to offer.

The past few weeks have witnessed a nasty internecine fight among religious conservatives about whether liberal democracy’s time has passed. Sohrab Ahmari, writing at First Things, attacked National Review’s David French for adhering to a traditional commitment to liberal democracy while “the overall balance of forces has tilted inexorably away from us.” Would the left have stood by liberal democracy in the face of such circumstances? In fact, the balance of forces tilted away from the left’s cultural priorities for most of my lifetime, and the left’s response was to win arguments—slowly, painfully, and at incalculable personal cost.

We've always known the right were crybabies. And we've always known that they are on the losing side of history. But they're not going quietly into the night; nor are they trying to convince anyone through logic. Same as always.

Getting away with it

President Trump's two biggest liars supporters made news today, one by quitting, and the other by refusing to.

First, the president announced yesterday that Press Secretary Sarah Sanders would leave at the end of the month. Though it remained unclear whether Sanders knew about this before the Tweet, she confirmed she will depart government service in two weeks, after successfully destroying the credibility of her office over the past two years:

The White House press secretary—the office, if not the person—is an outgrowth of the idea that, in a democracy, information matters, and facts matter, and while politicians and the press may tangle and tussle, they are ultimately on the same team. Sanders, who ascended to the press-secretary role in July of 2017, after the brief and peevish tenure of Sean Spicer, publicly rejected that idea. To watch a Sanders press conference, or to watch her representing the White House on cable news, was to be confronted with a vision of America that is guided by political Darwinism—an environment in which everything is a competition, with the winner determined by who can shout the loudest, who can distract the most effectively, who can get in the best insult before the time for questioning is over.

Here is some of the misinformation Sanders has spread on behalf of the White House: She has insisted that her boss never “promoted or encouraged violence,” although Donald Trump, among many other such promotions, said of a protester who’d been ejected from a 2016 rally, “I’d like to punch him in the face.” She has outright dismissed the stories of the multiple women who have accused Trump of sexual abuse as lies. She has told reporters that she’d heard from “countless” FBI agents who were happy that Trump had fired James Comey in 2017; she would later characterize that, to Robert Mueller, as a mere “slip of the tongue.”

Her broader legacy, though, is an acquiescence to the idea that facts themselves have a political bias. The agent of a president who has transformed “fake news” from an offhanded insult into a democratic anxiety, Sanders has used her powerful pulpit to promote the “Fake News Awards,” her boss’s carnivalesque attempt to institutionalize his mockery of the American media. She has accused reporters of “purposefully misleading the American people.” She has deflected; she has belittled; she has eye-rolled; she has condescended; she has obfuscated; she has misled; she has lied. And she has treated it all as a battle to be won. So many of the public interactions Sanders has conducted with reporters—whether Acosta or April Ryan or Jim Sciutto or Brian Karem or the many other members of the press who are charged with reporting on the daily doings of the White House—have been wars in miniature. And, day by day, the martial logic lurking in the way Americans talk about their politics—the campaign and the press corps, the war room—has been made ever more literal. What is true about the world we all navigate, together? That becomes a less important question than who is winning in it.

Margaret Sullivan calls Sanders "the disdainful Queen of Gaslighting."

Meanwhile, after years of obvious, repeated violations of the Hatch Act (prohibiting government employees from making public political statements), the Office of Special Counsel recommended that the White House fire Kellyanne Conway. The Trump-appointed OSC head made this recommendation. Conway's response? "Blah, blah, blah:"

It’s not that Conway is unaware of the rules. She’s openly thumbed her nose at them. In a May interview, when asked about overstepping the rules, she replied, “If you’re trying to silence me through the Hatch Act, it’s not going to work … Let me know when the jail sentence starts.”

Her cavalier attitude toward the law, while galling, is also probably safe. The Hatch Act is written with the understanding that the president would not want his aides flagrantly and wantonly violating the law, and only the president can fire a senior aide for violating the law. In the Trump administration, that has been revealed as a loophole, since this particular president has no inclination to punish violations that benefit him. (One of the most outspoken critics of Trump’s disrespect for laws and regulations has been the longtime Republican lawyer George Conway, who has used his Twitter feed to criticize the president. He also happens to be married to Kellyanne Conway. As of this writing, George Conway had not yet commented.)

We need to get these people out of office as soon as legally possible. Unfortunately, they can still do a lot of damage between now and January 2021.

Incomprehensible privacy policies

Kevin Litman-Navarro, writing for the Times, analyzed dozens of privacy policies online for readability and brevity. The situation is grim:

The vast majority of these privacy policies exceed the college reading level. And according to the most recent literacy survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, over half of Americans may struggle to comprehend dense, lengthy texts. That means a significant chunk of the data collection economy is based on consenting to complicated documents that many Americans can’t understand.

Despite efforts like the General Data Protection Regulation to make policies more accessible, there seems to be an intractable tradeoff between a policy’s readability and length. Even policies that are shorter and easier to read can be impenetrable, given the amount of background knowledge required to understand how things like cookies and IP addresses play a role in data collection.

“You’re confused into thinking these are there to inform users, as opposed to protect companies,” said Albert Gidari, the consulting director of privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society.

As data collection practices become more sophisticated (and invasive), it’s unlikely that privacy policies will become any easier to comprehend. And if states continue to draft their own data protection laws, as California is doing with its Consumer Privacy Act, privacy policies could balloon with location-specific addendums.

Litman-Navarro called out the BBC for its readable, short policy that explains to normal people exactly how the Beeb will use their data. He also called out AirBnB for the opposite: a lawyerly document of incredible length that tells users nothing.

Here at the Daily Parker, we only collect your personal information (specifically, your email address and name) if you give it to us through the Comment form, and we don't show your email address to anyone. Sometimes we will use it to get in touch with you directly about a comment you've left. Otherwise we treat it as we treat our own private information. Clear?

A fun rant to read

Not a lot new in David Roth's takedown of the president today, but he does have a few good bits:

The spectacle of expert analysts and thought leaders parsing the actions of a man with no expertise or capacity for analysis is the purest acid satire—but less because of how badly that expert analysis has failed than because of how sincerely misplaced it is. Trump represents an extraordinary challenge to political media precisely because there is nothing here to parse, no hidden meanings or tactical elisions or slow-rolled strategic campaign. Mainstream political media and Trump’s opponents in the Democratic Party conceive of politics as chess, a matter of feints and sacrifices and moves made so as to open the way for other moves. There’s an element of romance to this vision, which is a crucial tenet in a certain type of big-D Democratic thought and also something like the reason why anyone would need to employ a political analyst. But Trump is not playing chess. The man is playing Hungry Hungry Hippos.

And here at last we are beginning to circle around Trump’s true superpower, and are closer to identifying the small and stubborn thing that defines him. It’s what binds his deliriously incoherent politics, and helps him thread together his wildly far-flung grievances—Trump never forgets a slight, and pursues ancient grudges against bygone New York showbiz figures with the same tireless vigor that he brings to his campaigns against his various Deep State persecutors—into a single rancid system of being. There is nothing artful or concealed about Donald Trump, which is one of the secrets of his strange success as a politician. His lies are preposterous and glaring and never anything but the obvious opposite of what is actually true; his unquestioned desires and deeply held, deeply unreasoning bigotries and petty fixations are all absolutely untouched from the 1988 Rich Guy factory settings; the sheer mass of his annihilating selfishness leaves no room for anything like subtext. Trump is nothing but what he appears to be, and his superpower comes from this. His superpower is getting upset.

It's comforting that the latest polls show him losing to at least five of the Democratic candidates running against him, with Biden and Sanders mopping the floor with him. But it's also a long way to the election.

Über alles

What could possibly go wrong with inviting every Über driver in Chicago to one party?

Monday evening, John Morrison saw a convoy of cars with Uber stickers taking over Lake Shore Drive near Hyde Park, all headed to the same place as him: the Museum of Science and Industry.

The Chicago resident had been invited there by a friend who drove for the ride share company, which was hosting an appreciation party for employees at the museum at 6:30 p.m.

But before Morrison could even get near, he had to fight a free-for-all of traffic in the eastern part of Hyde Park. The worst of it was at the 57th Street and Cornell Drive merge, where Morrison said cars were going the wrong way and ended up facing other cars bumper to bumper. A bus drove north in the southbound lanes to bypass the traffic. Police cars scaled sidewalks as officers tried to direct frustrated drivers.

Things didn’t get much better once he made it inside the museum, almost an hour after hitting the congestion on Lake Shore Drive near the 53rd Street exit, he said. Morrison said the museum was “jampacked to the gills” and that caterers and museum employees appeared overwhelmed by the mobs of people heading toward the dinner buffet.

After the event, Morrison Tweeted: "A massive traffic jam filled entirely with @Uber drivers trying to get into a overfilled parking garage to get free stuff is the embodiment of the late-stage capitalist nightmare that is Uber." Yes. And entirely predictable—except, and no surprise here, to Über management.

The mechanical voids that make billionaires' erections bigger

Developers have learned to game New York City's zoning laws to construct buildings far larger than the plain meaning of those laws should allow:

Now, in a Second Gilded Age with magnates looking to park their millions in Manhattan real estate, developers stop at little to deliver the high-status goods, which these days are calculated in height and views.

As a result, New York is facing the “mechanical void” problem. It may sound like an embarrassing medical condition, but the voids are actually just air above floors occupied by equipment (mainly heating, ventilating, and cooling systems). That air becomes extraordinarily valuable when it can boost apartments higher above view-blocking neighbors. Raising the ceiling of mechanical spaces (which usually need only 10- to 15-foot ceilings) to as high as 350 feet becomes not absurd but savvy.

New York City does not generally limit building heights, but instead controls bulk and density by what’s called the floor area ratio (FAR). This means that a residential developer can build nine times the square feet of the lot area in an R-9 district. Depending on how the building bulk is arranged, the usual result is a building of about 15 stories.

Ridiculously tall mechanical spaces, which are not counted toward FAR, are not the only abusive (though ostensibly legal) tactic developers use to push buildings to ever greater heights.

If you think this through, however, these developments still go through the zoning board. So yes, the legal interpretations twist the law into painful shapes for the sake of bragging rights, but also a city agency lets them do it.

This reminds me of one of Chicago's ugliest buildings, at 2314 N. Lincoln Park West, which juts out from the rest of the buildings on the block (some of them historic) and looks like someone measured wrong. I haven't confirmed this, but I think the error was measured in thousands of dollars, and involved an alderman or two.

Sod off, bra

The secular Israelis who work at a Jerusalem coffee shop got so sick of ultra-right religious nutters screaming at them that they chose a targeted counter-protest:

Bastet, a vegan and LGBT-friendly cafe whose blue tables spill across a central Jerusalem sidewalk, is a secular oasis for residents seeking Saturday refreshment in a city that largely comes to a standstill for the Jewish Sabbath.

But each week, a procession of ultra-Orthodox men, some in their finest fur hats and gold robes, invariably marches past in a show of displeasure at the cafe’s desecration of the day of rest. “Shabbos!” they chant, using the Yiddish word for the Sabbath.

On a recent Saturday, the wait staff struck back, lifting their shirts to reveal their bras in an attempt to push back the religiously conservative demonstrators.

But while the Bastet staff may have won a small reprieve, the wider battle is only expected to escalate. The ultra-Orthodox, also known as Haredim, make up only 12 percent of the population but are the fastest-growing segment of Israelis, with women giving birth to an average of 6.9 children.

In the early days of the Israeli state, many of the ultra-Orthodox were opposed to the secular Zionist movement that created it, fearing it would eradicate their form of Judaism. Now, they are increasingly using their power in Israel’s 120-member parliament, where they most recently won 16 seats, to promote and protect their interests, rather than shunning it.

Ah, religion. If you believe a supernatural, all-powerful entity has sanctioned your desire to do nothing but pray all day, every day, you might run into conflicts with the other several billion people in the world who find this behavior parasitical (or, at least, a head-slapping example of the free rider problem).

And yet this is how a significant minority of Israelis behave. Not only do they find it offensive that the majority of Israelis want them to, you know, give something back for all the privileges they receive, but also they find it offensive that the majority of Israelis don't sit around talking to the supernatural entity all day.

I'm glad to see, with the inability of Benyamin Netanyahu to get concessions from the center-right about these issues, that secular Israelis have had enough and have started pushing back in earnest.