The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Someone call lunch

Today in Chicago we have seen more sun than in the past several weeks, and yet here I toil in my cube. But a lot is going on outside it:

And we now return to our regular JSON debugging session, already in progress.

Mid-day link roundup

As I try to understand why a 3rd-party API accepts one JSON document but not another, nearly-identical one, who could fault me for taking a short break?

Back to JSON and my miserable cold.

False equivalence and journalistic malfeasance

It has become a lot more likely in the last two weeks that my party will nominate Elizabeth Warren for President. (Note: I am a financial contributor to the Warren campaign.) One way you can tell is that journalists have started writing misleading stories about her:

It is certainly true, as CBS noted, that some people have questioned Warren’s account [of being fired because she was pregnant in 1971]. A story in the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative publication, did so, as did a writer for Jacobin, a socialist publication. But to say that stories have raised questions is not the same thing as saying the questions are good ones.

Over the years, people have also “raised questions” about whether the earth rotates around the sun, the moon landing happened, Communism was fatally flawed, Elvis died and Barack Obama is an American. But I wouldn’t recommend putting any of those questions in a headline.

A good rule: Whenever you see the phrase “raises questions” in a story, you should be deeply skeptical of its assertions. The phrase is a crutch that journalists too often use to make implicit accusations they can’t support.

Regardless of who gets the nomination for either party, the next election (389 days away), we can all to to bed each night knowing the next day will have even worse coverage of the election than the day before. If Warren runs against President Trump, I can scarcely imagine the sexist and anti-intellectual campaigning and journalism we'll get.

Meanwhile, in the same newspaper, Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman puts into words something I've thought for years: we're actually lucky that Trump is an unstable moron.

False equivalence again, because of course

James Fallows calls out the press for, once again, treating two different scandals as the same:

Under normal circumstances, the press’s strong preference is for procedural balance. The program’s supporters say this, its critics say that, so we’ll quote both sides of it to you, the public, to decide who is right.

This approach has the obvious virtue of seeming fair, as a judge is fair in letting the prosecution and defense each make its case. It has a less obvious but very important advantage for news organizations, that of sparing reporters the burden of having to say, “Actually, we think this particular side is right.” By definition, most reporters most of the time are covering subjects in which we’re not expert. Is the latest prime-rate move by the Fed a good idea? Or a bad one? I personally couldn’t tell you. So if I am covering the story, especially on a deadline, I’ll want to give you quotes from people “on both sides,” and leave it there.

As an Atlantic colleague puts it: Journalism is hard; criticizing journalism is easy. In this business we’re all doing our best, and we all make mistakes in real time. But the very difficulty of these calls is why it’s worth noting a similar, as-if-we’d-learned-nothing-from-2016 case of false equivalence, which is unfolding before our eyes. This is “the Ukraine problem.”

Patient Zero of the next false-equivalence epidemic has appeared this weekend. No one can be sure of the cure, but the time to recognize the symptoms, and their source, is now.

The "scandal" of whatever Hunter Biden might have done in Ukraine a few years ago is nothing compared to the illegality of having the president's personal lawyer demand of a foreign government that Biden be investigated.

A tale of two periodicals

This morning I pointed to William Langewische's essay the New York Times Magazine published this morning about the 737-MAX airplane crashes last year. Lagnewische has flown airplanes professionally and covers aviation as part of his regular beat. He has written, among other things, analyses of the Egypt Air Flight 990 suicide-murder in 1999; an entire book about the USAirways 1549 Hudson River ditching in 2009; and numerous other articles and essays of varying lengths about aviation. His father, Wolfgang, wrote one of the most widely-read books about aviation of the 20th Century.

Langewishce's essay takes a sober, in-depth approach to disentangling the public perception of Boeing and its management from the actual context of both 737-MAX crashes. While he doesn't absolve Boeing entirely, he explains how the regulatory, training, and safety mindsets (or lack thereof) in Indonesia and Ethiopia probably contributed much more to the accidents.

This afternoon comes a different perspective from the New Republic. In her first article for the magazine, New York-based writer Maureen Tkacik takes aim squarely at Boeing's management. Her tone seems a bit different than Langewische's:

In the now infamous debacle of the Boeing 737 MAX, the company produced a plane outfitted with a half-assed bit of software programmed to override all pilot input and nosedive when a little vane on the side of the fuselage told it the nose was pitching up. The vane was also not terribly reliable, possibly due to assembly line lapses reported by a whistle-blower, and when the plane processed the bad data it received, it promptly dove into the sea.

[T]here was something unsettlingly familiar when the world first learned of MCAS in November, about two weeks after the system’s unthinkable stupidity drove the two-month-old plane and all 189 people on it to a horrific death. It smacked of the sort of screwup a 23-year-old intern might have made—and indeed, much of the software on the MAX had been engineered by recent grads of Indian software-coding academies making as little as $9 an hour, part of Boeing management’s endless war on the unions that once represented more than half its employees.

But not everyone viewed the crash with such a jaundiced eye—it was, after all, the world’s first self-hijacking plane. Pilots were particularly stunned, because MCAS had been a big secret, largely kept from Boeing’s own test pilots, mentioned only once in the glossary of the plane’s 1,600-page manual, left entirely out of the 56-minute iPad refresher course that some 737-certified pilots took for MAX certification, and—in a last-minute edit—removed from the November 7 emergency airworthiness directive the Federal Aviation Administration had issued two weeks after the Lion Air crash, ostensibly to “remind” pilots of the protocol for responding to a “runaway stabilizer.”

She does mention the reputation of Indonesian aviation about mid-way through: "And so all the early hot takes about the crash concerned Indonesia’s spotty safety record and Lion Air’s even-less-distinguished one."

I searched for a few minutes to find out what experience Tkacik has flying airplanes or reporting on aviation, and while no results don't necessarily mean she has none, I would conclude from what I found that she has many different experiences.

Tkacik's take isn't entirely wrong; Boeing has some responsibility here. But the contrast between Langewische's sober, fact-based reporting and Tkacik's damn-them-all-to-hell point-of-view piece really surprised me today, as did Tkacik's choice not to report more deeply on why Boeing made certain choices, and what I find to be an over-reliance on a single source who seems to have a bone to pick with his former employer.

Of course, her article it's completely in line with the New Republic's anti-corporate editorial philosophy. Yet I found myself rolling my eyes after the first couple of paragraphs because it's so anti-corporate, and frustratingly shrill. It's why I stopped reading The Nation, another outlet Tkacik has written for, and why I find myself fact-checking Mother Jones. If everything is an outrage, and all corporations are evil, where does that leave us?

How to combat influence operations

Bruce Schneier has an eight-step plan—though he recognizes Step 1 might not be possible:

Since the 2016 US presidential election, there have been an endless series of ideas about how countries can defend themselves. It's time to pull those together into a comprehensive approach to defending the public sphere and the institutions of democracy.

Influence operations don't come out of nowhere. They exploit a series of predictable weaknesses -- and fixing those holes should be the first step in fighting them. In cybersecurity, this is known as a "kill chain." That can work in fighting influence operations, too­ -- laying out the steps of an attack and building the taxonomy of countermeasures.

Step 1: Find the cracks in the fabric of society­ -- the social, demographic, economic, and ethnic divisions. For campaigns that just try to weaken collective trust in government's institutions, lots of cracks will do. But for influence operations that are more directly focused on a particular policy outcome, only those related to that issue will be effective.

Countermeasures: There will always be open disagreements in a democratic society, but one defense is to shore up the institutions that make that society possible. Elsewhere I have written about the "common political knowledge" necessary for democracies to function. That shared knowledge has to be strengthened, thereby making it harder to exploit the inevitable cracks. It needs to be made unacceptable -- or at least costly -- for domestic actors to use these same disinformation techniques in their own rhetoric and political maneuvering, and to highlight and encourage cooperation when politicians honestly work across party lines. The public must learn to become reflexively suspicious of information that makes them angry at fellow citizens. These cracks can't be entirely sealed, as they emerge from the diversity that makes democracies strong, but they can be made harder to exploit. Much of the work in "norms" falls here, although this is essentially an unfixable problem. This makes the countermeasures in the later steps even more important.

Also unfortunately, most of the countermeasures require informed and conscientious political leaders. Good luck with that.

Afternoon articles

Just a few for my commute home:

  • New York Times reporter James Stewart interviewed Jeffrey Epstein on background a year ago, and it was weird.
  • The Post analyzes temperature records to find which parts of the US have warmed faster than others.
  • Chemist Caitlin Cornell may have discovered an important clue about the origin of life on Earth.
  • The site of the city's first Treasure Island store, just two blocks from where I lived in Lakeview from 1994-1996, might become an ugly apartment tower unless residents can block it.
  • Seva Safris digs into the differences (for good and ill) between JSON and XML.
  • Timothy Kreider delivers a stinging rant against gun-rights advocates: "The dead in El Paso and Dayton, whether they were shopping for back-to-school backpacks or just out having beers and hoping to get laid on a Saturday night, gave their lives so that you might continue to enjoy those freedoms."

I will now return to my crash-course in matrix maths.

A frustrating time to be alive

Or, as Tom Lehrer once remarked, "I'm beginning to feel like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis."

The latest exhibit: how the press reacted to Robert Mueller's testimony on Wednesday. Adam Serwer:

In any other administration, in any other time, a special prosecutor, former FBI director, and decorated Marine testifying that the president of the United States was an unprosecuted felon who encouraged and then benefited from an attack on American democracy in pursuit of personal and political gain would bring the country to a grinding halt. But the American political press found Mueller insufficiently dazzling.

All of this, of course, was in Mueller’s report, which most members of Congress still have not read. The press, for its part, first accepted a false summary put forth by Attorney General William Barr, and then largely persisted in repeating his mischaracterizations, even after the bulk of the report was released.

On Wednesday, media outlets had the chance to get the story right. Instead, they largely chose to focus on Mueller’s performance instead of on his findings.

Andrew Sullivan saw in this, and in the Democratic leadership's refusal to hold President Trump accountable for his crimes, as fresh evidence that "the American constitutional system is failing on every level":

The system, it turns out, is not even strong enough to withstand one Trump term, let alone two. Trump intuited this in 2016, and if he wins reelection, as he now has a good chance of doing, what’s left of liberal democracy will be under acute duress.

The “extinction-level event” that I feared in the spring of 2016 is already here. Look around you. And it wasn’t even a fight.

Now, Sullivan has been a pessimist on almost every level for years. But both he and Serwer have a point that it looks like our side don't know how to fight this insanity.

It's a world gone: Mad

Beloved humor magazine of my childhood and my father's Mad Magazine will effectively end its 67-year run with the August issue:

Sources tell [The Hollywood Reporter] that after issue 9, MAD will no longer be sold on newsstands and will only be available through comic book shops as well as mailed to subscribers. After issue 10, there will no longer be new content in subsequent issues save for the end-of-year specials (those will be all-new). Beginning with issue 11, the magazine will only feature previously published content — classic and best-of nostalgic fare — from its massive fault of the past 67 years. DC, however, will also continue to publish MAD books and special collections.

The venerable humor magazine was founded in 1952 by a group of editors led by Harvey Kurtzman. Although it began as a comic book, bimonthly issues were published and became the norm for the satirical content. MAD, with it's always memorable covers featuring the gap-toothed Alfred E. Neuman, has been highly influential on successive generations of comedians, artists, writers and performers.

Fweep. So long, and thanks for all the jokes.

Egregiously misleading headline on CNBC

I saw this on the video monitor of an elevator I took heading back to my desk just now, and laughed out loud with all the derision I could muster (I was alone in the elevator):

This debt could force you into bankruptcy, and it’s not student loans

No shit. Student loans have huge barriers to discharge in bankruptcy in the US, so it's unlikely they would show up as "the cause" of bankruptcy actions.

I'm not sure what CNBC's goal was, but my guess is to counter the talking points from some of the Democratic primary campaigns about forgiving student loan debt.