The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Stuff I didn't read because I was having lunch in the sun

We have actual spring weather today, so instead of reading things while eating lunch I was watching things, like this corgi:

I do have a few things to read while coordinating a rehearsal later tonight. To wit:

  • New York City declared a public health emergency because of measles. Measles. A childhood disease we almost eradicated before people started believing falsehoods about vaccination.
  • White House senior troll Stephen Miller has the president's ear, with predictable consequences.
  • Where did all of Chicago's taverns go? We used to have two to a block.
  • Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin admitted that the White House and the IRS have discussed releasing the president's tax forms, contrary to the statute meant to keep the White House from influencing the IRS.
  • Why is Canadian PM Justin Trudeau imploding so fast?
  • The UK Government has started preparing for EU elections next month, a sign that they expect to get an extension on the Brexit timeline from the EU. If not, then they will crash out of the union at 5pm Chicago time Thursday, scoring one of the worst own-goals in the history of world politics. (It's worth noting that losing the American colonies was another one.) I can't wait for PMQs tomorrow.

Today's weather, of course, is just a teaser. We even have snow flurries in the forecast for Friday. Welcome to Chicago.

F is for Fugue

Blogging A to ZToday's Blogging A-to-Z challenge post will discuss a form of music that, sadly, doesn't turn up much anymore. I say "sadly" because the fugue is one of the most intricate and difficult-to-write musical forms, but also one of the most satisfying when done well—and no one did it better than old J.S. Bach.

At its most basic, a fugue takes a short musical subject and tosses it around two or more voices in counterpoint; that is, each musical line (voice) stands on its own as a melody, but the melodies combine to form a more complex whole.

Take this two-bar subject:

Now listen to what Bach does with it:

Let's dig into what actually happens in there.

First we hear the two-bar theme, followed the second voice with the same two-bar theme starting on the dominant note. But notice the first voice keeps going, and then the two voices play off each other with bits of the theme. Then a few bars later, the third voice enters on the tonic again, and we're off to the races.

The fugue returns to the theme several times in each of the voices: in the relative major at bar 11, then at the relative major's own dominant at 13, before returning to C minor at 21. Between these Bach inserts episodes, where the voices interact without returning to the theme. Or so the German would have you believe! Because it's there, sometimes in pieces, at half-speed, upside down, and backwards.

Finally the lowest voice enters boldly with the theme for the last time, after which it hangs out on a tonic pedal while the upper two voices let the theme become the final cadence of the fugue. (Bonus points if you noticed the German sixth in bar 30.)

Bach wrote 48 fugues in his two-volume Well Tempered Clavier, which was sort of a product launch for something so technical I'm coming back to it on the 26th. He also wrote The Art of the Fugue, which is exactly what it says on the tin, and countless other fugues as parts of longer works. Mozart, who loved Bach's music more than almost everyone alive in the 1780s, tried his hand at a few. One of his best is in the 4th movement of the Solemn Vespers of the Confessor, K339, "Laudate pueri Dominum" (Psalm 113, "Blessed be the servants of the Lord", complete with yet another cool example of a German sixth in the "amen" bit at the end).

For really hard-core fugueing, check out Morzart's massive choral fugue in the "Cum Sancto Spiritu" movement of his Mass in c-minor, K427, or Handel's "Amen" fugue that ends Messiah. (And, of course, you must hear the Apollo Chorus perform this fugue from memory next December.)

Note that A-to-Z posts run Monday through Saturday, so come back Monday for the G post. Or check back over the weekend for my usual politics, weather, and the dog.

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.

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.

Critics of the Web—30 years ago

Alexis Madrigal takes a look at criticisms of the World Wide Web from when it was new:

Thirty years ago this week, the British scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web at CERN, the European scientific-research center. Suffice it to say, the idea took off. The web made it easy for everyday people to create and link together pages on what was then a small network. The programming language was simple, and publishing was as painless as uploading something to a server with a few tags in it.

Just a few years after the internet’s creation, a vociferous set of critics—most notably in Resisting the Virtual Life, a 1995 anthology published by City Lights Books—rose to challenge the ideas that underlay the technology, as previous groups had done with other, earlier technologies.

Maybe as a major technological movement begins to accelerate—but before its language, corporate power, and political economics begin to warp reality—a brief moment occurs when critics see the full and awful potential of whatever’s coming into the world. No, the new technology will not bring better living (at least not only that). There will be losers. Oppression will worm its way into even the most seemingly liberating spaces. The noncommercial will become hooked to a vast profit machine. People of color will be discriminated against in new ways. Women will have new labors on top of the old ones. The horror-show recombination of old systems and cultures with new technological surfaces and innards is visible, like the half-destroyed robot face of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2.

Then, if money and people really start to pour into the technology, the resistance will be swept away, left dusty and coughing as what gets called progress rushes on.

The whole piece is worth a read.

Chicago's sinking, but don't worry

Wherever a landmass had several kilometers of ice on top, it deformed. Glaciers covered much of North America only 10,000 years ago. Since they retreated (incidentally forming the Great Lakes and creating just about all the topography in Northern Illinois), the Earth's crust has popped back like a waterbed.

Not quickly, however.

But in the last century, Chicago has dropped about 10 cm while areas of Canada have popped up about the same amount:

In the northern United States and Canada, areas that once were depressed under the tremendous weight of a massive ice sheet are springing back up while others are sinking. The Chicago area and parts of southern Lake Michigan, where glaciers disappeared 10,000 years ago, are sinking about 10 to 20 cm each century.

One or 2 millimeters a year might not seem like a lot, but “over a decade that’s a centimeter. Over 50 years, now, you’re talking several inches,” said Daniel Roman, chief geodesist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It’s a slow process, but it’s a persistent one.”

While Chicago’s dipping is gradual, this dynamic could eventually redefine flood plains and work against household sewer pipes that slope downward to the sewer main.

The same phenomenon has affected the UK as well. Scotland is popping up and England is sinking, as are other pairs of regions similarly glaciated. (Sterling, however, has a long way to go...)

Changing ideas of romance, or just more awareness?

Writing for the Washington Post, columnist Monica Hesse examines how our understanding of the famous V-J Day photo of George Mendonsa kissing Greta Zimmer Friedman have changed between then and Mendonsa's death this week:

Within 24 hours of his passing, a Sarasota, Fla., statue that re-created his and Friedman’s famous kiss was defaced. On Friedman’s aluminum leg, in red spray paint, someone had written, “#MeToo.”

As much as any image, the picture of Mendonsa and Friedman has defined American perception of romance. It’s Richard Gere nipping at Julia Roberts’s fingers with a jewelry box; it’s John Cusack with a boombox beneath Ione Skye’s window. Mendonsa’s grip around Friedman’s waist is fervent; her body is limp as if overwhelmed by the passion of his embrace. Behold, the superlative ideal of a perfect kiss.

Maybe it could be wonderful and exciting to be kissed, by surprise, by a stranger, at the end of a long and terrible war. But when you hear Friedman’s description of it, the whole thing starts to sound unpleasant. The whole photo starts to look unpleasant, too: the way her head is locked into the crook of his elbow, unable to move or avoid his lips.

I’d like to think of it more as a statement of fact. Today, this iconic photo might be considered an assault. It doesn’t mean Mendonsa was a monster. It doesn’t mean humans were bad in 1945. It just means that stories don’t always behave as we’d like. Our fantasies can be punctured by the reality of other people’s feelings.

Friedman said she and Mendonsa kept in occasional contact and exchanged holiday cards. When a Life photographer invited the pair to reunite in Times Square in 1980, she went. But she said she didn’t want to reenact the kiss.

A kiss based on one person’s joy and another person’s non-consenting shock isn’t really a perfect kiss. And actually, it never was.

What images from 2019 will look weird in 2094? Someone with a time machine, please let me know.