The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Will tomorrow be sunny too?

I have no idea. But today I managed to get a lot of work done, so I'll have to read these later:

Finally, if you live in Chicago and look straight up and slightly north with binoculars tonight, you might see a little green comet that last passed Earth 50,000 years ago.

Notes to self

The sun finally came out around 3:30 this afternoon, as a high overcast layer slid slowly southeast. Of course, the temperature has fallen to -11°C and will keep sliding to -18°C overnight, but at least the gloom has receded! January will still end as the gloomiest ever, however, with around 18% of possible sunshine all month, plus whatever we get tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I want to come back to these articles later:

Finally, looking back a little farther (about 13 billion years), the James Webb Space Telescope has picked out some of the oldest galaxies in the universe. And they're really weird.

Tuesday night round-up

In other news:

And finally, a glimmer of hope that the 10-year project to build one damn railroad station near my house might finally finish in the next few weeks.

Shooting in Half Moon Bay

Longtime readers will know that I have spent a lot of time in Half Moon Bay, Calif., over the past 15 years. So yesterday's events shocked me:

Seven people are dead following two linked shootings in the Northern California city of Half Moon Bay, officials said.

The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office tweeted at 3:48 p.m. Monday that they were responding to a shooting “with multiple victims in the area of HWY 92 and the HMB City limits.” The office tweeted roughly an hour later that a suspect was in custody and there "is no ongoing threat to the community at this time."

San Mateo County Sheriff Christina Corpus confirmed at a press conference Monday evening that seven people were killed in two related shootings. She said four victims were found dead from gunshot wounds at a location in the 12700 block of San Mateo Road, also known as Highway 92, around 2:30 p.m. A fifth victim was discovered with "life-threatening injuries" and transported to Stanford Medical Center. They remain there in critical condition.

California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) learned of the shooting while at the hospital with victims of Sunday's mass shooting in Los Angeles.

Neither the National Rifle Association nor the right-wingers suing Illinois over its latest attempt to regulate military weapons commented, though we can all expect them to say it's "too soon" to talk about why we're still the only country in the OECD where this happens. Perhaps they'll talk to the San Mateo County farm families mourning their loved ones today?

Molly White is exactly who we need right now

Accused fraudster Sam Bankman Fried did what every prosecutor hopes a defendant will do: start a blog. Researcher Molly White annotated his first post:

Sam Bankman-Fried has apparently decided to fill his time spent confined to his parents' Palo Alto home with blogging, perhaps in the hopes that he can just blog his way out of the massive criminal and civil penalties he's facing.

Although many of his statements here repeat things he's said elsewhere, I think it is useful to be able to analyze some of the story he's trying to spin all in one place, rather than cobbling his narrative together from multiple sources.

It's remarkable the extent to which SBF outright lies, or at the very least twists his version of events to distort reality in his favor. I don't intend to annotate further posts from him—which I suspect will be many—but instead hope that this will be sufficient to give some idea of just how thoroughly misleading his statements are.

Sample annotation:

If I was going to try to pick out a crypto firm that suffered large losses in an attempt to say "look, it was happening to everyone!", I might not pick the one whose founders have allegedly been in hiding for the last six months.34

And this:

It's clear that SBF's definition of "accurate" differs from most people's. SBF seems to think that if you tell someone that you have $1,000, and then later you say "...in monopoly money", it was still an accurate and defensible statement.

You know, I'm beginning to think 2023 will be the year people lose patience with lying fraudsters.

Friday night I crashed your party

Just a pre-weekend rundown of stuff you might want to read:

  • The US Supreme Court's investigation into the leak of Justice Samuel Alito's (R) Dobbs opinion failed to identify Ginny Thomas as the source. Since the Marshal of the Court only investigated employees, and not the Justices themselves, one somehow does not feel that the matter is settled.
  • Paul Krugman advises sane people not to give in to threats about the debt ceiling. I would like to see the President just ignore it on the grounds that Article 1, Section 8, Article VI, and the 14th Amendment make the debt ceiling unconstitutional in the first place.
  • In other idiotic Republican economics (redundant, I know), Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA) has proposed a 30% national sales tax to replace all income and capital-gains taxes that I really hope the House passes just so the Senate can laugh at it while campaigning against it.
  • Amazon has decided to terminate its Smile program, the performative-charity program that (as just one example) helped the Apollo Chorus raise almost $100 of its $250,000 budget last year. Whatever will we do to make up the shortfall?
  • How do you know when you're on a stroad? Hint: when you really don't want to be.
  • Emma Collins does not like SSRIs.
  • New York Times science writer Matt Richtel would like people to stop calling every little snowfall a "bomb cyclone." So would I.
  • Slack's former Chief Purple People Eater Officer Nadia Rawlinson ponders the massive tech layoffs this week. (Fun fact: the companies with the most layoffs made hundreds of billions in profits last year even as market capitalization declined! I wonder what all these layoffs mean to the shareholders? Hmm.)
  • Amtrak plans to buy a bunch of new rail cars to replace the 40-year-old rolling stock on their long-distance routes. Lots of "ifs" in there, though. I still hope that, before I die of old age, the US will have a rail travel that rivals anything Europe had in 1999.
  • The guy who went to jail over his fraudulent and incompetent planning of the Fyre Festival a couple of years ago wants to try again, now that he's out.

Finally, Monica Lewinsky ruminates on the 25 years since her name popped up on a news alert outing her relationship with President Clinton. One thing she realized:

The Tonight Show With Jay Leno died in 2014. For me, not a day too soon. At the end of Leno’s run, the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University analyzed the 44,000 jokes he told over the course of his time at the helm. While President Clinton was his top target, I was the only one in the top 10 who had not specifically chosen to be a public person.

If you don't follow her on social media, you're missing out. She's smart, literate, and consistently funny.

Catching up at home

New Zealand's prime minister, Jacinda Arden, just resigned unexpectedly, which is a much more surprising story than any of these I queued up:

Finally, I'm glad to discover that ibuprofen may be more effective than acetaminophen for treating tension headaches, so I will now take one.

You can't buy labor at below-market rates

Chicago Transit Authority president Dorval Carter, Jr., blamed "extremely higher-than-normal call-offs" (i.e., a blue flu) for the New Year's Eve failures that left The Daily Parker waiting on a platform 35 minutes for the El:

It’s not unusual for CTA workers to “call off” on holidays, but the CTA has in the past been ready to replace them. But this year, with a shortage of train operators in the ranks, the CTA couldn’t deliver the number of free trains it promised.

The CTA promoted increased service on the Blue and Red lines on New Year’s Eve, advertising free train rides sponsored by Miller Lite. Carter did not say how many workers called off, and CTA officials did not provide a number after Friday’s meeting.

CTA worker unions, represented by Local 308 and Local 241, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

Carter said he would work with the unions and employees to come up with better ways to incentivize staff to come to work. Disciplinary measures could only go so far, considering the worker shortage, he said.

“We are operating very close to the margins,” Carter said. “I am trying to both put out a level of service that is within the constraints of the workforce that I have, but recognizing that in order for that to work, my workforce has to show up.”

One factor possibly limiting the available workforce: wages that have not kept up with inflation. If you want more people to work for you, pay more; QED. But even Chicago, with one of the best transport networks in the world, still struggles to see public transit as a public service rather than a profit-making enterprise. So who should pay more for the CTA? All of us in Chicago, perhaps by taking back some of the Federal money we send to Oklahoma for their useless freeway projects.

At least I didn't get too cold on the Brown Line platform on New Year's Eve. I still would have liked to see my friends earlier than I did.

Another step in the slow decline of an empire

The United States once had the best universities in the world. Maybe we still do, to an extent. Most empires, in their primes, have them. But in every culture, some people simply don't (or can't) understand the benefits of learning for its own sake. In the waning days of empire, when politics drifts farther from governing and closer to self-dealing, people who do understand why we need great universities nevertheless see political advantage in pretending we don't.

In the last week I've seen three unrelated articles about this symptom of American decline, from three different perspectives, that make me thing the United States has another century or so before we no longer have the tools or the will to remain the shining beacon on the hill we have always fancied ourselves.

First, Tom Nichols provides a snapshot of one university where the students exercise so much control over the curriculum that they have shut themselves off from real learning:

Unless you follow academic politics, you might have missed the recent controversy at Hamline University, a small private college in St. Paul, Minnesota. The short version is that a professor named Erika López Prater showed students in her global-art-history class a 14th-century painting depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Aware that many Muslims regard such images as sacrilege, she warned ahead of time that she was going to show the picture and offered to excuse any student who did not want to view it.

Professor López Prater’s contract has not been renewed, and she will not be returning to the classroom. The university strenuously denies that she was fired. Of course, colleges let adjuncts go all the time, often reluctantly. But this, to me, seems like something more.

The “rights” of students were not jeopardized, and no curriculum owes a “debt” to any student’s “traditions, beliefs, and views.” (Indeed, if you don’t want your traditions, beliefs, or views challenged, then don’t come to a university, at least not to study anything in the humanities or the social sciences.) Miller’s view, it seems, is that academic freedom really only means as much freedom as your most sensitive students can stand, an irresponsible position that puts the university, the classroom, and the careers of scholars in the hands of students who are inexperienced in the subject matter, new to academic life, and, often, still in the throes of adolescence.

The consumer-driven view of academia weakens institutions from within. Which works just fine if you're an ethnic entrepreneur who wants to squelch critical thinking and has the power to destroy an entire state's university system from without:

New College is undoubtedly a liberal enclave: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis carried Sarasota County by over 20 points in November, and two months earlier a slate of MAGA candidates won a local school board election with support from the Proud Boys. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that the school would find itself in the crosshairs of DeSantis’s ongoing neo-McCarthyite crusade. On Friday morning, DeSantis announced six appointees to the New School board of trustees. Of the six, the three most eye-catching are Christopher Rufo, who’s risen to notoriety as one of the best-known voices inveighing against “critical race theory” and stoking back-in-vogue incendiary anti-LGBTQ rhetoric; Charles Kesler, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, a far-right think tank; and Matthew Spalding, a professor of government at Michigan’s Hillsdale College, a deeply conservative private Christian college that both Rufo and DeSantis’s chief of staff explicitly held up as a model for the Florida school.

There’s no better avatar than Rufo for DeSantis’s ambitions to make Florida “where woke goes to die.” In his demagogic campaign to “lay siege to the universities,” Rufo has relentlessly pursued a series of “educational gag orders” in a number of states that have sought to forbid professors from discussing certain topics related to race, gender, and sexuality. In October, he also appeared to celebrate a targeted campaign against one such professor: When a University of Chicago undergrad-cum-conservative-influencer unleashed a wave of rape and death threats on an adjunct professor who was set to teach a winter course on “The Problem of Whiteness,” Rufo praised the student’s “excellent work” after he took to Twitter to brag about getting the class canceled. (In reality, the class was postponed to allow for time to institute safety precautions.) That student is now the national chairman of “Students for Ye,” a far-right youth organization dedicated to a Kanye West presidency.

So what is driving these appointments? “You’re attacking such a small school with these kids who are really brilliant, and which has a high proportion of students who have faced backlash just to who they are,” [New College alumnus Derek] Black said. “For almost everybody I’ve ever known who went to New College, it was [a place where] you can figure out who you are, you can share that with your peers, and you can find a group of people who are going to make you a space where you can explore that and feel comfortable with it. I have a lot of trouble seeing this announcement as anything other than feeling uncomfortable with students being able to just feel like they don’t have to uphold any sort of traditional identity.”

Republican Florida governor Ron DeSantis—who very well could get sworn in as President two years and five days from now—gets a win no matter how the New College battle goes. Either he destroys the college completely, making it that much less likely to find effective critical thought in Florida, or New College survives, but as a huge target for attacks on "wokeness."

Finally, we have an op-ed in this morning's Times from historian Daniel Bessner, sounding the alarm about the decline of humanities study because people don't see its value:

[O]nly 27 percent of those who received a Ph.D. in history in 2017 were employed as tenure track professors four years later. The work of historians has been “de-professionalized,” and people like myself, who have tenure track jobs, will be increasingly rare in coming years. This is true for all academic fields, not just history. As Adrianna Kezar, Tom DePaola and Daniel T. Scott note in their book “The Gig Academy,” about 70 percent of all college professors work off the tenure track. The majority of these professors make less than $3,500 per course, according to a 2020 report by the American Federation of Teachers. Jobs that used to allow professors to live middle-class lives now barely enable them to keep their heads above water.

What is to blame? In the past generation the American university has undergone a drastic transformation. To reduce costs, university administrators have dramatically reduced tenure. And as the protections of tenure have withered away, the size of nonteaching university staffs have exploded. Between 1976 and 2018, “full-time administrators and other professionals employed by those institutions increased by 164 percent and 452 percent, respectively,” according to a 2021 paper on the topic. Professors have been sacrificed on the altar of vice deans.

At the same time, in an effort to fund research that might redound to their financial benefit and to demonstrate their pragmatic value to politicians and to the public, universities have emphasized science, technology, engineering and math at the expense of the humanities. As the American Academy of Arts and Sciences reported, citing data from 2019, “spending for humanities research equaled 0.7 percent of the amount dedicated to STEM R.&D.”

Entire areas of our shared history will never be known because no one will receive a living wage to uncover and study them. It’s implausible to expect scholars with insecure jobs to offer bold and innovative claims about history when they can easily be fired for doing so. Instead, history will be studied increasingly by the wealthy, which is to say those able to work without pay. It’s easy to see how this could lead American historical scholarship to adopt a pro-status-quo bias. In today’s world, if you don’t have access to elite networks, financial resources or both, it just doesn’t make sense to pursue a career in history. In the future, history won’t just be written by the victors; it’ll also be written by the well-to-do.

As a historian, Bessner knows that this has happened before, and knows what happened afterward.

The dark ages from the fall of the Western Roman Empire until the early medieval period saw Europe slip from the center of literature, art, and architecture, into an intellectual backwater ridiculed in the great universities of the Arab world. It took a thousand years for Europe to recover. Fortunately, the rest of the world moved on. But Europeans endured centuries of intellectual stagnation and religious repression until the hidden repositories of knowledge finally peeked out of the darkness in the 11th and 12th centuries.

The founders of the United States hoped they could create a country with all the best parts of Rome and none of the worst parts. I only wish they'd had more accurate histories of the Roman Empire so they could have seen how valuable learning for its own sake actually was.

Waiting for customer service

I'm on hold with my bank trying to sort out a transaction they seem to have deleted. I've also just sorted through a hundred or so stories in our project backlog, so while I'm mulling over the next 6 months of product development, I will read these:

And my bank's customer service finally got back to me with the sad news that the thing I wanted them to fix was, and we are so sorry, it turns out, your fault. Fie.