The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Sure Happy It's Thursday, March 319th...

Lunchtime roundup:

Finally, the authors of The Impostor's Guide, a free ebook aimed at self-taught programmers, has a new series of videos about general computer-science topics that people like me didn't learn programming for fun while getting our history degrees.

The Economist's Bartleby column examines how Covid-19 lockdowns have "caused both good and bad changes of routine."

Calmer today as the Derpnazis return home

We had a relatively quiet day yesterday, but only in comparison to the day before:

Meanwhile, here in Chicago:

Finally, Bruce Schneier advises the incoming administration on how to deal with the SolarWinds intrusion.

See? Yesterday was quiet.

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.

Sunday noon

We've got a day and a half of autumn left in Chicago. Here's what I'm reading on a lazy Sunday:

And finally, new research shows that the pyroclastic flows from Vesuvius in 79 CE turned people's brains to glass. Yummy.

Better Know a Ballot

Talk-show host Stephen Colbert has set up a website called Better Know a Ballot where you can check on the voting requirements for your state. He's producing videos for each state (starting with North Carolina) to explain the rules.

That's the bright spot of joy for you today. Here are other...spots...of something:

OK, one more bit of good news: The Economist reported this week that the southern hemisphere had almost no flu cases this winter, because pandemic response measures work on influenza just as they work on Covid-19.

About the schools

Josh Marshall has a good summary of why things suck for parents, kids, and teachers right now:

But the plan [New York] city and most of [New York] state has come up with shows how limited this can be and how much we’ve made a fetish of in-school instruction. There are two big reasons to have in-school instruction. The first and most important is the educational, social and emotional development and well-being of children. The second is the impact on the economy. Many parents can’t work if their children aren’t in school and to the extent they can their children’s remote learning lacks the support it needs.

I think there is a real question whether in-school instruction on these terms is even worth it. At best kids will be in school 1/3 of the time – and it may be less – and under such straightened and perhaps nerve-wracking conditions that most of the educational and social benefit is actually lost. Watching the process as a journalist and a parent it seems to me that the school system and political authorities have been so focused on the absolute necessity of ‘reopening’ the schools that they’ve ended up with something that is not obviously better than full remote learning and called it success.

The truth is that we’re in a horrible situation. We have failed as a country to control the virus and because of that we’re forced into no-win situations and choices which are all bad. As much as anything we simply lack the kind of information that allows us to make informed, smart decisions. And yet September is less than four weeks away.

Meanwhile, Downtown Chicago suffered a coordinated attack of looters last night for no apparent reason, though police returning fire from a suspect and injuring him yesterday afternoon may have been the excuse. Since the looting took place across town and the looters came with U-Haul trucks I can't say I have any sympathy for them on this occasion. If it turns out that any of the looters were right-wing agitators, I will be disappointed but not surprised.

Oh, and the government of Lebanon resigned.

Bigly missing the point

Philip Bump puts in black-and-white terms why the president should perhaps shut up about his cognitive test results:

“And they were very surprised,” Trump said of the doctors. “They said that’s an unbelievable thing. Rarely does anybody do what you just did.”

No. That did not happen. Or, at least, it didn’t happen without a qualifier like, “rarely does anybody your age not demonstrate any of the impairments this test is meant to measure,” which is possible. But the doctors did not call this “an unbelievable thing.” It would be like my fawning over your alphabet recitation: “Wow, you even nailed the L-M-N-O-P.”

Getting a perfect score [on the cognitive test Trump took] is literally the baseline for being normal, not for being exceptional.

[P]eople were quick to point out the flip side of his boast about the doctors: Having medical professionals be amazed that you performed normally on an evaluation of your cognitive abilities is not exactly the endorsement it might have seemed like as the words were coming out of Trump’s mouth.

I would enjoy seeing the president take an IQ test, though. I would enjoy that very much.

Sure Happy It's Tuesday!

Today's interesting and notable news stories:

Finally, Lawrence Wright explores how historical plagues, particularly the European one in 1347, can sometimes spark radical social change.

Princeton drops the Wilson name

Princeton University has removed the name of their 13th president (and the 28th President of the United States) from their School of Public Policy:

Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time. He segregated the federal civil service after it had been racially integrated for decades, thereby taking America backward in its pursuit of justice.  He not only acquiesced in but added to the persistent practice of racism in this country, a practice that continues to do harm today.

Wilson’s segregationist policies make him an especially inappropriate namesake for a public policy school. When a university names a school of public policy for a political leader, it inevitably suggests that the honoree is a model for students who study at the school. This searing moment in American history has made clear that Wilson’s racism disqualifies him from that role. In a nation that continues to struggle with racism, this University and its school of public and international affairs must stand clearly and firmly for equality and justice. The School will now be known as “The Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.”

Wilson is a different figure from, say, John C. Calhoun or Robert E. Lee, whose fame derives from their defenses of the Confederacy and slavery (Lee was often honored for the very purpose of expressing sympathy for segregation and opposition to racial equality). Princeton honored Wilson not because of, but without regard to or perhaps even in ignorance of, his racism.

That, however, is ultimately the problem. Princeton is part of an America that has too often disregarded, ignored, or excused racism, allowing the persistence of systems that discriminate against Black people. When Derek Chauvin knelt for nearly nine minutes on George Floyd’s neck while bystanders recorded his cruelty, he might have assumed that the system would disregard, ignore, or excuse his conduct, as it had done in response to past complaints against him.

Josh Marshall thinks this was the correct decision:

Wilson was also a thoroughgoing Southerner and Lost Cause defender. Indeed, his scholarship as a history professor – mostly notably in Division and Reunion – played an important role in building a historiography that portrayed slavery as a generally benign institution and Reconstruction as a tragic failure that oppressed the white South with corruption and tyranny. Wilson was a thoroughgoing racist even by the standards of his own day. His attitude toward African-Americans and their political rights don’t just look bad from the perspective of the day. They were widely considered retrograde even in his own day.

This was a through-line throughout Wilson’s career, first as a scholar, a university president, governor and finally President. When he became President he segregated the federal workforce which had been integrated since Reconstruction. Indeed, it’s not too much to say that on becoming President Wilson began a thoroughgoing program of bringing Jim Crow to the federal workplace. The Post Office and Treasury set up separate bathrooms and lunch rooms for black and white employees. He even went so far as to institute a policy of requiring federal office-seekers to append photographs to their applications.

Wilson was the second Democrat and the first Southerner to become President after the Civil War. He brought thoroughly Southern white attitudes toward Blacks to the federal government and worked quickly to put them into effect.

Good on Princeton, though perhaps 50 years too late. I'm glad for the changes finally coming to the US. I'm just astounded that it has taken over 150 400 years.

Strange juxtapositions in CD library explained

I'm still plowing through all the CDs I bought over the years, now up to #55 which I got in November 1988. It's a 1957 recording of the Robert Shaw Chorale performing various Christmas carols. (Remember, remember, I got it in November.)

This comes between Billy Joel's Piano Man and Glenn Gould performing Bach's Inventions and Sinfonias. Then I'll get Simon & Garfunkel, Mozart, William Byrd, and Haydn.

At least part of this strangeness comes from my experience as a music major during my first year at university, when the music department announced a new requirement for every music major to take a listening exam every year. They published four lists, one for each school year, effectively giving students up to 3½ years to listen to all 100 works. The list drove a lot of my CD purchases while there.

In mid-April, you'd go to the music library and listen to a cassette with 60-second excerpts of music. (I think there were 50 excerpts.) You got one point for naming the composer, a point for naming the work, and if applicable, a point for identifying the movement. To pass the exam, you had to get 80% of the total points available.

Here are some of the works on the 1988-89 list:

  • Bach, Cantata #4, "Christ lag in Todesbanden"
  • Beethoven, Symphony #6
  • Mozart, Requiem K626 (but only the "Introitus," "Kyrie," and "Dies Irae")
  • Varèse, Ionisation
  • Verdi, La Traviata

The lists got progressively more difficult, with the 1991-92 list containing obscurities like Schubert's Der Erlkönig and Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #2.

The music faculty believed, quite reasonably, that musicians should have some passing familiarity with these 100 works for the same reason one would expect an English major to know a few Shakespeare plays or a computer-science major could explain the bubble-sort algorithm to a non-major. It's called the canon.

In April 1989, I was the only music major to pass the exam. I didn't take the 1990 exam because I'd switched majors; but in 1991, the music department asked me to take the exam again as a control, because in 1990 no one passed the first time. Once again, I was the only person to pass the first time out.

I just couldn't fathom why. Each list had such variety, just knowing the pieces on them should give you 67% of the right answers without even trying. For example, the 1990 exam included polar opposites Berg's Wozzeck and Brahms' piano quintet in f-minor. You'd think someone could easily distinguish them. If I recall correctly, the department even let people bring in the list after the 1989 debacle. So you could just look at the list and decide whether the thing you're listening to is atonal singing in German with orchestra or a small ensemble with four strings and a piano. Or if it's a choral work instead of a massive symphony. Or if it's something by Bach or something by Ives.

It was about this time that I started worrying for the future of the arts.

If you're interested, here's the 1988-89 list. If you know anything about classical music, you should be able to identify most of these works.