The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

EU votes on Daylight Saving Time

The European Union Parliament today voted 410-192 to allow member states to end Daylight Saving Time in 2021:

The vote is not the last word on the issue but will form the basis of discussions with EU countries to produce a final law.

The countries have yet to take a stance.

A parliament report in favour of operating on a single time throughout the year said scientific studies link time changes to diseases of the cardiovascular or immune systems because they interrupt biological cycles, and that there were no longer any energy savings.

What this actually means requires one more EU-wide step:

All 28 member states would need to inform the European Commission of their choice ahead of the proposed switch, by April 2020. They would then coordinate with the bloc's executive so that their decisions do not disrupt the functioning of the single market.

Last year, the European Commission proposed abolishing the seasonal clock change after an EU-wide online poll showed overwhelming support. It has been accused, however, of rushing through the vote ahead of European Parliament elections in May. 

More:

Countries that wanted to be permanently on summertime would adjust their clocks for the final time on the last Sunday in March 2021. Those that opt for permanent wintertime would change their clocks for the final time on the last Sunday of October 2021.

The British government has yet to offer any formal opinion on the proposal, which risks creating fresh problems over the status of Northern Ireland after Brexit.

I think we can predict, just by looking at longitude, which countries will go which direction. The UK has made noises that it will keep the twice-yearly time changes, thank you very much. My guess is that Portugal, Spain, the Baltics, and other countries at the western ends of their time zones will opt for standard time, while other countries will go to summer time. That would prevent the problems I outlined when this measure first came into the news a few weeks ago.

The UK and US governments continue to make crises worse

First, in the UK this week, while people can feel slightly relieved the country won't crash out of the European Union in three days, things haven't gotten any less chaotic:

Downing Street aides directly asked hard-Brexit Conservatives at Chequers on Sunday whether Theresa May’s resignation as prime minister would be enough to get them to endorse finally the exit deal struck with the European Union, it has emerged.

A source said that in those private conversations several aides to the prime minister present asked whether it would help them vote for the controversial Brexit deal if May were to quit. “It didn’t look like a coincidence; aides like this are not meant to think for themselves,” they added.

And let's not forget:

Brexit would inflict immediate and profound economic shocks on Ireland, hitting households, businesses and government finances, according to a study.

Britain’s departure from the European Union, with or without a deal, would cause significant damage to jobs and economic growth, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) said in a comprehensive report published on Tuesday.

A decade after Brexit, Ireland’s output would be 2.6%, 4.8% or 5% lower than if Britain had stayed in the EU, it said, painting a stark picture as policymakers in Dublin try to grapple with a possibly imminent blow.

A disorderly no-deal Brexit would mean 80,000 fewer jobs being created in Ireland over a decade, derailing the government’s budget planning, said the thinktank, which works closely with the Department of Finance.

Meanwhile, back home, the GOP has whipped up their spin machine to whip up a Benghazi-style counter-offensive in the wake of the Mueller Report:

The strategy — currently loose and informal — is still in its infancy. But all signs indicate a Trump operation seeking vengeance and accountability from critics it says maligned the president over the investigation into whether his campaign or associates conspired with Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. An adviser who talked to the president said Trump has an appetite to see his critics investigated. The adviser spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversation.

While Trump and his allies have portrayed Attorney General William P. Barr’s summary of Mueller’s findings as a complete vindication of the president, Barr made it clear that the special counsel was not exonerating the president on the question of obstruction of justice. And details of the report, if made public, could prove troublesome for Trump. Mueller’s work led to criminal charges against 34 people, including six former Trump associates and advisers, and showed that Russia sought to influence the election and help Trump.

Still, the president’s aides and allies have shown little desire to turn the page, preferring to write a new book detailing what they say is a rush to judgment from a Washington establishment unwilling to ever give Trump an unbiased assessment.

The over-arching strategy, remember, is to whip up the base enough to get the president re-elected in 2020. 

In both the UK's Brexit catastrophe and the destructive tribal politics driven by the GOP for the last 10 years, we see people desperately trying to cling to power even if it takes the whole system down.

These things happen every so often, as right-leaning groups, driven by fear, blow things up so that they personally don't lose anything. Unfortunately for the rest of us, the most prominent historical examples of this behavior (1930s Europe, 1860s US, 1770s UK, 1690s Europe, 1630s England...) do not inspire confidence.

Party like it's 1959!

Citylab has the story of the remaining private railroad cars in the US:

[Bob] Lowe is one of only about 80 people in the U.S. who not only own their own railcars, but are also certified to operate them on Amtrak lines across the country—a subset of a national subculture of rail aficionados who buy up old train equipment. In addition to individual private owners, historical societies, museums, and nonprofit groups also run train excursions in locations around the U.S. While some buy surplus cars, locomotives, cabooses, and other railroad equipment from brokerage firms like Ozark Mountain Railcars, others, like Lowe, purchase cars directly from independent sellers, usually hobbyists themselves who can no longer afford to maintain their collection.

Private railcars are still on the tracks, but their owners, already an endangered species, are now wondering whether the end of the line is approaching for this pricey pursuit. “Where the industry is right now, it’s a little bit dicey, because people don’t know what’s going to happen,” says John Radovich, a longtime railcar collector based in Dallas.

For this, they pay Amtrak $3.67 per mile (an increase from the $3.26 per mile as of last year, Lowe says). Any trailing cars after the first one run an additional $2.81 a mile. That doesn’t include the other expenses that go along with private car ownership. Each one of Lowe’s cars, for example, cost him about $150,000. His Colonial car was turnkey, but he put $50,000 into the Salisbury Beach car for maintenance and upgrades, including new brakes and electric heat, to make it Amtrak certified. If you’re a DIY collector on a tighter budget, a beater unrestored car, without electric power, can start at around $25,000. A fully restored one can be upwards of $500,000.

This is not to be confused Car 553, the last remaining private railcar in scheduled service, that has run on the Union Pacific North Line in Chicago for the past few decades. Membership in that club only costs $900 a year.

Starting the April entries

It may appear that blogging will slow down a little bit going into the last week of March. That's because Blogging A-to-Z entries take a little more time to write. This year might be a little ambitious, also, because I plan to provide musical snippets to go along with the text (otherwise what's the point?).

My goal today: get through a chunk of the first week of April. And figure out when I can write the rest for that week.

I've also written an entry for an historical anniversary mid-April.

Stay tuned.

Not out of the woods yet, Britain

Even though the EU has agreed to extend the UK's Article 50 exit date to mid-May, Parliament still has to pass the enabling legislation to accept the deal. After that, Brexit Minister and England's Most Unhappy Frontbencher Kwasi Kwarteng spent half an hour yesterday getting to the phrase "next week," partly because the Government still haven't fully sorted what they will present to Commons then:

Almost half an hour into Kwarteng’s response to an urgent question following the EU’s imposition of an extended Brexit timetable at a summit in Brussels, the Labour MP David Hanson told the minister there was “a world outside this chamber who would like to know what day we are voting on any meaningful vote”.

Kwarteng responded: “The government fully intends to have a meaningful vote next week.”

The secondary legislation needed to change the departure date would also be tabled next week, he said, but declined to give any further details on timings, adding: “On this Friday I’m not going to say the exact hour and time of when the meaningful vote will take place.”

Separately, No 10 said the EU’s agreement to extend article 50 was contingent on holding the vote next week. The exact date has not been set, but it is likely to be on Tuesday or Wednesday, to give MPs and peers time to pass legislation to change the exit date before 29 March.

“The consideration is to hold it when we believe we have a realistic prospect of success,” May’s spokesman said. “My understanding of last night is that the extension to 22 May was contingent on winning the vote next week.”

May will meet cabinet ministers in Downing Street and spend the weekend working at Chequers, her country retreat.

Holy Brinksmanship, Batman. Vladimir Putin has to be sitting in the Kremlin with the Soviet equivalent of popcorn watching this farce, laughing out loud. Of course, he could be laughing at President Trump's announcement yesterday that the US will recognize Israel's conquest of the Golan Heights, which makes Putin's conquest of Crimea almost legitimate:

Trump’s push to assert Israel’s ownership of the strategic heights along the Syrian-Israeli border, conveyed in a tweet on Thursday, marked a major shift in U.S. policy and has been welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But it also raised concerns that confrontations along the cease-fire line could escalate.

Israel seized two-thirds of the Golan during the 1967 war, and since 1973 Syria has made no military effort to regain it. Its army is no match for Israel’s superior military capabilities.

The U.S. assertion of Israeli claims will give Iran a propaganda boost at a time when the Trump administration is pressing allies in the region to join efforts to roll back Iranian influence. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Beirut on Friday morning on a visit aimed at urging Lebanese leaders to take action to limit Hezbollah’s growing prominence in the Lebanese government.

This, the day before our Secretary of State visits the region. I'd call it unbelievable but it really isn't.

A to Z Theme Reveal for 2019

Blogging A to ZOnce again, the Daily Parker will participate in the Blogging A-to-Z challenge, this year on the theme: "Basic Music Theory." 

For the A-to-Z challenge, I'll post 26 entries on this topic, usually by 7am Chicago time (noon UTC) on every day except Sunday. I'll also continue my normal posting routine, though given the time and effort required to write A-to-Z posts, I many not write as much about other things.

This should be fun for you and for me. Music theory explains how and why music works. Knowing about it can help you listen to music better. And, of course, it'll help you write music better.

The first post will be on April 1st.

(You can see a list of last year's posts here.)

Today's Google Doodle

Today is Johann Sebastian Bach's 334th birthday, and to celebrate, Google has created a Doodle that uses artificial intelligence to harmonize a melody that you can supply:

Google says the Doodle uses machine learning to "harmonize the custom melody into Bach's signature music style." Bach's chorales were known for having four voices carrying their own melodic line.

To develop the AI Doodle, Google teams created a machine-learning model that was trained on 306 of Bach's chorale harmonizations. Another team worked to allow machine learning to occur within the web browser instead of on its servers.

The results are...interesting. (I'm about to get my music theory nerd on, so if that's not your bag you can wait until I post something political this afternoon.)

Here's a little d-minor melody I whipped up:

The basic harmonic structure of this melody is i-V7/V-V-vi-V-i. Even though I haven't taken a music theory course in [redacted] years, I can probably harmonize this melody ten times without breaking a sweat. Basically, on the beats, you've got d minor, a minor on &2, E major, A major; then in the second bar, Bb major, g minor, E major, A major, d minor. (Note that some of those are passing harmonies that expand other harmonies.)

Google's AI did not do that. It actually got a little flummoxed. Here's one example:

Oh, dearie dearie me. I think one of the problems is that it thought I had done something really weird in F-major instead of something prosaic in d-minor. And it doesn't provide any way of tweaking the harmonization.

So, really very cool AI going on there, but not yet ready for prime time. Still worth playing around with. If I had more time I'd try some simpler melodies to see if it helps.

(If you liked this post, by the way, you will love what I do in April.)

White House stonewalls Congress

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, would like the White House to provide documents. Any documents:

I have sent 12 letters to the White House on a half-dozen topics — some routine and some relating to our core national security interests. In response, the White House has refused to hand over any documents or produce any witnesses for interviews.

Let me underscore that point: The White House has not turned over a single piece of paper to our committee or made a single official available for testimony during the 116th Congress.

As a reminder of what used to be “normal,” previous presidential administrations turned over tens of thousands of pages of documents in response to Oversight Committee investigations under both parties just a few years ago. The George W. Bush White House gave us more than 20,000 pages relating to Hurricane Katrina; numerous documents and witnesses relating to the leak of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity; and nearly 1,500 pages of emails between senior White House officials about the death of Pat Tillman. Similarly, the Obama White House produced many documents and emails relating to the Solyndra controversy, as well as witnesses and documents regarding the Benghazi, Libya, attacks, including communication between top White House officials and National Security Council staff.

By contrast, the complete refusal by the Trump White House to produce any documents or witnesses to the primary investigative committee in the House reflects a decision at the highest levels to deny congressional oversight altogether. The president dictated this approach the day after the election when he threatened a “warlike posture” against Democrats and then vowed that, at the end of two years, “I’m just going to blame them.”

President Trump’s actions violate our Constitution’s fundamental principle of checks and balances. If our committee must resort to issuing subpoenas, there should be no doubt about why. This has nothing to do with presidential harassment and everything to do with unprecedented obstruction.

You don't want Congress to issue subpoenas if you're the president, because then you've lost control over what they'll see. My guess is that Rep. Cummings fired this shot across the White House's bow to let them know subpoenas are coming soon.

The UK's reputation in Europe

Whether you prefer "shooting oneself in the foot" or "circular firing squad" as your metaphor, the UK's flailing with just a week left to go before crashing out of the EU has disappointed many people in Europe:

For politicians, diplomats and officials across the continent, the past two-and-a-half years of the Britain’s fraught, seemingly interminable and increasingly shambolic departure from the EU have proved an eye-opener.

Some have responded with humour. Nathalie Loiseau, France’s Europe minister, said recently that if she had one, she would call her cat Brexit: “It wakes me up miaowing because it wants to go out. When I open the door, its sits there, undecided. Then it looks daggers at me when I put it out.”

Others have found it harder to laugh. To the shock of many, ;Brexit has revealed a country they long looked up to locked in a narrative of its own exceptionalism, talking mainly to itself, incoherent, entitled, incapable of compromise (with itself or its neighbours), startlingly ignorant of the workings of an organisation it has belonged to for nearly 50 years, and unrealistic.

Only, Britain has been here so many times before. Crashing out of India so hard that the country hasn't had a day of peace in 70 years? Check. Getting rolled by the Soviets after putting a Soviet spy in charge of rooting out Soviet spies? Check. Appeasing a fascist regime bent on European hegemony? Check.

And now, it seems, Russia has rolled them again, as no country stands to gain more from Brexit than they. And still they're flailing about, going through the worst Constitutional crisis (self-inflicted!) since the 17th Century.

It's really sad.