The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

The White House Correspondents Dinner

This year the WHCA won't have a comedian or the president at its annual dinner. Instead, historian Ron Chernow will speak. Can't think why:

Go back a few minutes to hear the whole thing. I'm highlighting that passage because, don't forget, two days later Osama bin Laden was dead—because two hours earlier, President Obama gave the final order to have him killed.

Leadership.

Au revoir au Grand K

The International Bureau of Weights and Measures voted earlier today to ditch the platinum-iridium prototype kilogram in favor of a value of mass based on Planck's constant. The Post explains:

Since the 19th century, scientists have based their definition of the fundamental unit of mass on a physical object — a shining platinum iridium cylinder stored in a locked vault in the bowels of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) in Sevres, France. A kilogram was equal to the heft of this aging hunk of metal, and this cylinder, by definition, weighed exactly a kilogram. If the cylinder changed, even a little bit, then the entire global system of measurement had to change, too.

With Friday’s vote, scientists redefined the kilogram for the 21st century by tying it to a fundamental feature of the universe — a small, strange figure from quantum physics known as Planck’s constant, which describes the smallest possible unit of energy.

In 1875, the signing of the Treaty of the Metre made the system official. Two platinum and iridium prototypes — a meter-length bar and a kilogram-mass cylinder — were forged to serve as the standard units for the whole world. The BIPM distributed copies of each prototype to the signatory nations; the century-old U.S. national kilogram still sits in a glass case in a locked room down the hall from Pratt’s lab.

But the kilogram prototype, known as “Le Grand K,” was made by humans and is subject to all our limitations. It is inaccessible — the safe containing the cylinder can be opened only by three custodians carrying three separate keys, an event that has happened fewer than a dozen times in the object’s 139-year history. And it is inconsistent — when Le Grand K was examined in the 1980s, it weighed several micrograms less than it was supposed to. This meant that anyone who made products based on the standards had to reissue their weights. Manufacturers were furious. Lawmakers were called. Metrologists, people who study measurements, were accused of incompetence.

The article doesn't say what the Bureau will do with the kilogram prototype.

Lunchtime reading

I didn't have a moment to write any code from 9am until now, so my lunch will include doing the stuff I didn't do in all those meetings. At some point I'll get to these:

Now, back to writing code, as soon as I make yet another vet appointment for my bête noir.

John Kinzie's servant

One of the earliest settlers in Chicago, John Kinzie, illegally held a man as a slave who ultimately ran away. Kinzie then sued him in Louisiana to get him back:

In 1804 John Kinzie moved into the old DuSable cabin on the north bank of the Chicago River and began trading with the local Native tribes. Thomas Forsyth Jr, his half-brother, was in business with him. That spring the partners took on an indentured servant named Jeffrey Nash.

Sometime after the 1804 indenture was instituted, Forsyth took Nash there. And sometime later Nash ran away. He eventually made his way to New Orleans, married, and started a family.

The traders were not about to let Nash go. In 1813 they began proceedings in Louisiana to get him back. The case was labeled Kensy (sic) and Forsyth, plaintiffs v. Jeffrey Nash, defendant.

Now the plaintiffs claimed that Nash was not a free-born servant under indenture, but actually their slave. Residents of Peoria had recognized Nash as Forsyth’s slave. Nash himself was said to have admitted being a slave, and had run away when Forsyth broke a promise to free him. The traders also produced a bill of sale transferring the slave Nash to them, dated September 5, 1803.

However, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banned slavery from the territory that would eventually become Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin. The only exceptions were for persons convicted of a crime, or fugitive slaves escaping from a slave-holding state. Nash did not fall under either of these categories. Therefore, the court found in his favor. He would remain a free man.

The road in downtown Chicago named after Kinzie was the locus of the biggest disaster in city history.

The nihilism of the GOP

Writing for New Republic, Garret Keizer argues that nihilism, not racism or anger at elites, really drives Trump voters:

A nihilist is someone who dedicates himself to not giving a shit, who thinks all meanings are shit, and who yearns with all his heart for the “aesthetic pleasure” of seeing the shit hit the fan. Arguing with a nihilist is like intimidating a suicide bomber: The usual threats and enticement have no effect. I suspect that is part of the appeal for both: the facile transcendence of placing oneself beyond all powers of persuasion. A nihilist is above you and your persnickety arguments in the same way that Trump fancies himself above the law.

[I]t’s probably a mistake to view nihilism as “an explanation apart” from the common analyses of the Trump phenomenon. Economic dispossession and virulent racism stand in relation to nihilism not as alternative theories but as reciprocal causes and effects. In other words, all three flourish in a moral vacuum.

A sense of radical incredulity, spectacularly typified by Trump’s refusal to believe his own intelligence services, is but one manifestation of the nihilism that brought him to power. What makes him “the real deal” in the eyes of his most ardent admirers is largely his insistence that almost everything else is fake. Like him, they know that the news is fake, the melting ice caps are fake, the purported citizenship of certain voters is fake, science is fake, social justice is fake, the whole notion of truth is fake. Whatever isn’t fake is so relative that it might as well be fake; “true for you,” maybe, but that’s as far as it goes. Among those who call themselves “believers” and are thus at least technically not nihilists, one frequently finds an obsession with apocalypse, a gleeful anticipation of the living end that will destroy the inherent fakery of all things. The social teachings of the Gospels need not trouble the Christian conscience so long as the troubles predicted in Revelation come to pass.

Another pertinent factor is envy, a basic human emotion that rising social inequality can only exacerbate. To put it in cruder terms: “The world sucks for me, so I am going to make it suck for you too. I have lost my job, my status as a white male, and may even lose my gun. So you, my smug, privileged friend, are going to lose your civil liberties, your faith in social progress, your endangered species, your affirmative action, your reproductive freedom, your international alliances, your ‘wonderful’ exchange student from Syria.” The rationale is probably not too distant from that of the jealous husband who shoots his wife, her lover, and himself. Enjoying ourselves, are we? We will enjoy nothing!—which is to say, we will enjoy the only thing a nihilist can enjoy.

It's a slightly depressing essay, but probably accurate. Sigh.

The sad story of Cityfront Center

Today's Chicago Tribune lays out a cautionary tale about Cityfront Center, a downtown Chicago development that hasn't lived up to its developer's promises:

The goal was a “progression of spaces which are intended to unify the entire mixed-use project,” according to a 1987 document signed by then-planning commissioner Elizabeth Hollander and Chicago Dock’s president, Charles R. Gardner.

Thirty-one years later, no one disputes that Cityfront Center is a real estate success, even though it includes Chicago’s most infamous hole in the ground — the foundation for the unbuilt Chicago Spire, the twisting, 2,000-foot condominium tower that went bust in 2008.

The area, which turned out to be a better site for apartments than offices, is home to thousands of residents and generates tens of millions of dollars in annual property tax revenue.

Promenades are about moving; plazas are where you stop and take in the city. They are its living rooms. But Cityfront Center’s plazas don’t issue much of a welcome.

The problems begin at what’s supposed to be the western gateway to the district — Pioneer Court, a large but underachieving expanse of pavement at 401 N. Michigan Ave., next to the new Apple store.

On the plaza’s north side are rows of trellislike pavilions, trees and shrubbery. While those features provide much-needed places to sit, they block the view into the heart of Cityfront Center and partly obstruct the path to it. They even end in a cul-de-sac of fountains that forces pedestrians to retrace their steps.

Getting from one of Cityfront Center’s plazas to the other, it turns out, is no walk in the park.

The article has detailed maps and photos that show, in painful detail, how urban planners really need to brush up on A Pattern Language again.

Links before packing resumes

I'm about to go home to take Parker to the vet (he's getting two stitches out after she removed a fatty cyst from his eyelid), and then to resume panicking packing. I might have time to read these three articles:

Moving tomorrow. I just want this to be over...

Fear of loss

Paul Krugman highlights how the politics of the Republican party are mainly about privileged white men feeling like they're losing their privilege:

There have been many studies of the forces driving Trump support, and in particular the rage that is so pervasive a feature of the MAGA movement. What Thursday’s hearing drove home, however, was that white male rage isn’t restricted to blue-collar guys in diners. It’s also present among people who’ve done very well in life’s lottery, whom you would normally consider very much part of the elite.

In other words, hatred can go along with high income, and all too often does.

At this point there’s overwhelming evidence against the “economic anxiety” hypothesis — the notion that people voted for Donald Trump because they had been hurt by globalization. In fact, people who were doing well financially were just as likely to support Trump as people who were doing badly.

I very much ran with the nerds during my own time at Yale, but I did encounter people like Kavanaugh — hard-partying sons of privilege who counted on their connections to insulate them from any consequences from their actions, up to and including abusive behavior toward women. And that kind of elite privilege still exists.

But it’s privilege under siege. An increasingly diverse society no longer accepts the God-given right of white males from the right families to run things, and a society with many empowered, educated women is finally rejecting the droit de seigneur once granted to powerful men.

And nothing makes a man accustomed to privilege angrier than the prospect of losing some of that privilege, especially if it comes with the suggestion that people like him are subject to the same rules as the rest of us.

This basic dynamic explains almost every revolution in history, including the American one in the 1770s. This time it's white men, but it could be any elite group who start losing power. The Post makes a similar point:

Jennifer Palmieri, a Democratic strategist and author of “Dear Madam President,” a book about reimagining women in leadership roles, said the nation’s fast-changing culture can be unsettling and indeed frightening to men in power.

“A lot of white men don’t know what it’s like to feel threatened, powerless and frustrated,” said Palmieri, former communications director for Clinton’s campaign. “As we go through the reckoning of this lopsided power balance, there’s going to be a lot more of this.”

The Republican Party has long identified with more traditional white males, such as former presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. But strategists say it is now turning more toward combative male candidates in the mold of Trump, with allegations of misconduct interpreted by many within the party not as liabilities but as unfair political attacks.

“We’re a party of angry, older white men at a time when our country is going through tremendous demographic change,” Republican strategist John Weaver said, predicting that the GOP would suffer the consequences in future elections.

So when white voters tell pollsters and reporters that they fear a tide of "those people" coming over the border, they feel afraid of losing their birthright. Not the traditions and culture, necessarily, but the parts of those things that put them on top because of the accident of birth.

Thank you for de-linting my blog

This week, I got an email from the SEO coordinator at Alaska Airlines:

My name is Shawn with Alaska Airlines. I'm reaching out concerning a specific link on blog.braverman.org. As you may have heard, Alaska Airlines acquired Virgin America last year. We are in the process of updating all Virgin America links to go directly to our website, https://www.alaskaair.com.

We want to make sure your readers are being sent to the correct place!

We would really appreciate it if you could update the link and anchor text, Virgin America, on this page: http://blog.braverman.org/2009/09/default to:https://www.alaskaair.com and Alaska Airlines. 

Please let me know if you have any questions.

If you're not the appropriate person to contact about this, can you put me in contact with the right person?

(The actual post he meant me to change is here.)

See, Alaska took over Virgin America, and now they want to scrub the Internet of all references to the old airline. I politely told Shawn that, no, I was not about to change a 9-year-old blog post to send Virgin down the memory hole.

He replied that he understood, but could I just change the URL to point to Alaska Air at least?

No, Shawn. I'm not editing the post, full stop. It reflects the state of the world in 2009, and to me, it's a document that needs to remain unaltered.

I'm sure the SEO coordinator of an airline believes that it's a doubleplusgood thing to help people who may inadvertently discover a blog post from 2009 not get misdirected. But the whole thing really creeped me out. Alaska or one of its vendors had to go through every one of the over 6,500 posts I've written looking for references to Virgin America, and then Shawn had to field my response to his (no doubt automated) email request. That's a lot of effort to pretend Virgin America never existed.

Did I mention Virgin America Airlines? Just making sure.

The Economist's Manifesto

Last week, The Economist celebrated its 175th anniversary with a call for renewing liberalism:

Liberalism made the modern world, but the modern world is turning against it. Europe and America are in the throes of a popular rebellion against liberal elites, who are seen as self-serving and unable, or unwilling, to solve the problems of ordinary people. Elsewhere a 25-year shift towards freedom and open markets has gone into reverse, even as China, soon to be the world’s largest economy, shows that dictatorships can thrive.

For The Economist this is profoundly worrying. We were created 175 years ago to campaign for liberalism—not the leftish “progressivism” of American university campuses or the rightish “ultraliberalism” conjured up by the French commentariat, but a universal commitment to individual dignity, open markets, limited government and a faith in human progress brought about by debate and reform.

Liberals have forgotten that their founding idea is civic respect for all. Our centenary editorial, written in 1943 as the war against fascism raged, set this out in two complementary principles. The first is freedom: that it is “not only just and wise but also profitable…to let people do what they want.” The second is the common interest: that “human society…can be an association for the welfare of all.”

Today’s liberal meritocracy sits uncomfortably with that inclusive definition of freedom. The ruling class live in a bubble. They go to the same colleges, marry each other, live in the same streets and work in the same offices. Remote from power, most people are expected to be content with growing material prosperity instead. Yet, amid stagnating productivity and the fiscal austerity that followed the financial crisis of 2008, even this promise has often been broken.

It's hard to read this leader and its accompanying essay without cheering. I only hope it can gain some traction.