The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Things to read on my flight Friday

I realized this morning that I've missed almost the entire season of The Good Place because I don't seem to have enough time to watch TV. I also don't have enough time until Friday to read all of these pieces that have crossed my desk only today:

And now, I must finish correlating two analyses of 1.48 million data points using similar but not identical algorithms. It's as much fun as it sounds.

Forty years ago today

On 4 November 1979, "students" stormed the American Embassy in Tehran:

After a three-hour struggle, the students took hostages, including 62 Americans, and demanded the extradition of the deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was receiving medical treatment in the United States for the cancer that ultimately would kill him. Some hostages would later be released amid the crisis, but it would take over a year for all to be freed.

It would take 444 days—until the last day of President Jimmy Carter's term—for Iran to release the hostages.

NPR this morning had an interview with Ambassador John Limbert, one of the hostages.

Where's my flying car?

It's the first day of November 2019, the month in which the 1982 classic film Blade Runner takes place. Los Angeles has a bit of haze today from wildfires in the area, but I'm glad to report that it isn't the environmental disaster portrayed in the movie. No flying cars, no replicants, and no phone booths either.

In other news:

Happy November!

Kicking the can down the road

The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal points out that while PG&E has some responsibility for California's wildfires, the real culprits are the voters and elected officials who have ignored routine maintenance for two generations:

A kind of toxic debt is embedded in much of the infrastructure that America built during the 20th century. For decades, corporate executives, as well as city, county, state, and federal officials, not to mention voters, have decided against doing the routine maintenance and deeper upgrades to ensure that electrical systems, roads, bridges, dams, and other infrastructure can function properly under a range of conditions. Kicking the can down the road like this is often seen as the profit-maximizing or politically expedient option. But it’s really borrowing against the future, without putting that debt on the books.

In software development, engineers have long noted that taking the easy way out of coding problems builds up what they call “technical debt,” as the tech journalist Quinn Norton has written.

Like other kinds of debt, this debt compounds if you don’t deal with it, and it can distort the true cost of decisions. If you ignore it, the status quo looks cheaper than it is. At least until the off-the-books debt comes to light.

In the same vein—or, perhaps, in a root-cause analysis—Vox recently interviewed author Bruce Gibney about his 2017 book A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America:

[T]he damage done to the social fabric is pretty self-evident. Just look around and notice what’s been done. On the economic front, the damage is equally obvious, and it trickles down to all sorts of other social phenomena. I don’t want to get bogged down in an ocean of numbers and data here (that’s in the book), but think of it this way: I’m 41, and when I was born, the gross debt-to-GDP ratio was about 35 percent. It’s roughly 103 percent now — and it keeps rising.

The boomers inherited a rich, dynamic country and have gradually bankrupted it. They habitually cut their own taxes and borrow money without any concern for future burdens. They’ve spent virtually all our money and assets on themselves and in the process have left a financial disaster for their children.

We used to have the finest infrastructure in the world. The American Society of Civil Engineers thinks there’s something like a $4 trillion deficit in infrastructure in deferred maintenance. It’s crumbling, and the boomers have allowed it to crumble. Our public education system has steadily degraded as well, forcing middle-class students to bury themselves in debt in order to get a college education.

Then of course there’s the issue of climate change, which they’ve done almost nothing to solve. But even if we want to be market-oriented about this, we can think of the climate as an asset, which has degraded over time thanks to the inaction and cowardice of the boomer generation. Now they didn’t start burning fossil fuels, but by the 1990s the science was undeniable. And what did they do? Nothing.

There's a reason the latest meme sweeping Gen Z is "ok, boomer."

Funny, not funny

American late-night host Jimmy Kimmel wondered if there were differences between President Obama's announcement that we had assassinated Osama Bin Laden and President Trump's announcement that we had assassinated Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. He only found a few:

To quote The Untouchables, "We laugh because it's true."

Backfield in motion

That's American for the English idiom "penny in the air." And what a penny. More like a whole roll of them.

Right now, the House of Commons are wrapping up debate on the Government's bill to prorogue Parliament (for real this time) and have elections the second week of December. The second reading of the bill just passed by voice vote (the "noes" being only a few recalcitrant MPs), so the debate continues. The bill is expected to pass—assuming MPs can agree on whether to have the election on the 9th, 11th, or 12th of December. Regardless, that means I'll be in London during the first weekend of the election campaign, and I'm elated.

Meanwhile, a whole bunch of other things made the news in the last day:

  • Writing for the New Yorker, Sam Knight argues that before Boris Johnson became PM, it was possible to imagine a Brexit that worked for the UK. Instead, Johnson has poisoned UK politics for a generation.
  • Presidents Trump and Obama came to Chicago yesterday, but only one of the personally insulted us. Guess which one.
  • That one also made top military officers squirm yesterday when he released classified information about our assassination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, including a photograph of the dog injured in the raid. The dog's name remained classified, even as it seemed clear that he was a very good boy.
  • Grinnell College in Iowa released polling data today showing just how much people don't like President Trump. Moreover, 80% of those polled thought a presidential candidate seeking election help from a foreign government was unacceptable. Adam Schiff cracking his knuckles could be heard all the way to the Grinnell campus.
  • An appellate court in North Carolina ruled that the election maps drawn up by the Republican Party unfairly gerrymander a Republican majority, and must be re-drawn for the 2020 election.
  • Grubhub's share price crashed today after the company released a written statement ahead of its earnings call later this week. The company made $1.0 million on $322.1 million in revenue during the 3rd quarter, and projected a loss for the 4th quarter.
  • The City of Atlanta decided not to pay ransom to get their computers working again, in order to reduce the appeal of ransomware attacks.

Finally, it looks like it could snow in Chicago on Thursday. Color me annoyed.

Defending the indefensible

Benjamin Wittes, writing for Lawfare, points out that Alexander Hamilton predicted exactly how an impeachment would bring partisan differences into even sharper relief than ordinary politics. So Republicans in Congress have to change the subject:

Yes, Trump’s approval numbers show there are cracks in the wall, as every pundit is busily pointing out. But the larger point, it seems to me, is that there is still a wall. And as Hamilton argued, it is the comparative strength of that wall, not any demonstration of Trump’s innocence or guilt, that will regulate the decision as to the president’s fate. The president’s defense, in other words, has been reduced to raw political power; it is not a genuine examination of facts but rather a numbers game to assemble enough elected officials aligned with the president’s faction to refuse to look reality in the eye and thus to ensure Trump’s acquittal.

Of course, no senators or members of the House of Representatives can say this outright. Despite this era of shredded norms and broken taboos, it is still verboten to state what is so obviously true: “I refuse to support Trump’s impeachment because, however merited it may be, I am a Republican and he is a Republican and the advantage of my party would be ill-served by his removal—which might also threaten my own prospects of reelection, which depend on voters who like the president more than they like me.”

There just isn’t any good argument for Trump at this stage. So what is a poor Republican member of Congress or senator, animated by Federalist 65 but unable to admit it, to do?

Their answer is to make noise.

In other words, get ready for a lot more sound and fury, signifying nothing, from the Republican caucus.

Things to think about while running a 31-minute calculation

While my work computer chews through slightly more than a million calculations in a unit test (which I don't run in CI, in case you (a) were wondering and (b) know what that means), I have a moment to catch up:

The first 30-minute calculation is done, and now I'm on to the second one. Then I can resume writing software instead of testing it.

The real divide

As someone who's had an online presence since 1983, I have learned a thing or two about online discourse. Principally, it's mostly crap. Most people know this.

But the dangerous thing is, in the last few years, people have forgotten it's crap. Everyone gets so worked up about the specific meaningless thing someone else posts they forget that there is a clear pattern of discourse going back to the beginning of politics.

The basic goal of the right is to consolidate wealth. The basic goal of the left is to live in an egalitarian utopia. And the basic goal of probably 90% of the world is just to live peacefully.

Notice the asymmetry. Living in an egalitarian utopia will never happen, for the simple reason that no one can agree on what that looks like. So the left's ultimate goal will forever be out of reach. We reform one thing, and discover inequality in another. So we try to fix that, and it turns out there's more inequality. It's Whack-a-Mole, for eternity. But the point is, we're trying. We will never live in a utopia, but we can make lives better anyway.

The right, on the other hand, has a long track record of achieving its goal, because it's easy to understand and easy to implement. They get your money; you lose your money; they win.

Now, most people don't vote to hand their money over to people who just want to get rich. So the challenge on the right has always been how to get people to give them money. And because their end goal is easy to understand, and tends to be popular with the people who achieve it, they've developed a few strategies to get your money and huge money-making enterprises to promote these strategies.

Right now, their main strategies are these: sell you things you want on easy terms and strangle you with interest, scare you into handing over your money, borrow from you to give you things you want and then make the other side explain how you were screwed (and not pay you back), make you borrow money to survive, or just steal it outright.

This post is really only about how the Right uses fear. Because everything else they do is just commerce.

As much as we may believe that the Right-wing parties care about jobs, the working class, traditional values, immigration, or whatever they claim to be for in any particular election, they really don't. Again, they care only about consolidating wealth. Because of that, they hate the free press, hate the poor, hate the middle-class, and hate anyone else who gets in their way.

It doesn't help that the center and the left have math, history, and numbers on their side. The right has a powerful message that appeals to a huge swath of people: give us your money and we'll protect you from everything you fear.

Only, they won't. They never have. One has only to look at every dictatorship ever, starting with the kleptocracy in Venezuela (or Russia or Zimbabwe or Hungary or Turkey...) right now to see how simple the whole problem is.

Since about the mid-1960s—not coincidentally, after a Democratic president passed the Civil Rights Act against the wishes of six states' worth of racist Democrats—left and right in this country have increasingly aligned by party, by geography, and by religion. Not just in the US: Canada just had an election yesterday in which a flawed center-left candidate almost lost to a frightening far-right candidate. And don't even get me started on Brexit.

The solution is equally simple: financial transparency. Demand to know where the money is going. Who voted to spend it; who voted to take it; what the actual effect of a government budget will be on you and your people. Then pay attention to what politicians actually say.

An honest person doesn't fear the truth.

Let's take Attorney General Bill Barr's speech at Notre Dame University this week as an example. He said a lot of controversial things, many of them just to rile up his base or piss off his opposition. Mainly, he said that people of faith are under attack from people who have read the First Amendment. (That's not exactly what he said, but given the miniscule portion of irreligious people in the US vs. the 70% who identify as Christian, it seems the top law-enforcement officer of this country fails to understand the Establishment Clause.)

But if you read how he concluded the speech, you see his primary  and clearly-articulated goal: he wants to send American tax dollars to religious private schools. Private schools owned by large corporations. Large corporations owned by the Secretary of Education.

Does Bill Barr care about giving every child in America the word of Jesus? Maybe. Who knows. Probably not. But he and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos care a lot about funneling public money to themselves. That bit is obvious.

I'm never going to have an abortion; you're never going to get fired for praying in your office. The vitriol ginned up about that sort of thing just distracts from the real issue of the early 21st century: Rich people are stealing from you, and you're letting them.

So do this. Vote your conscience on abortion, if your candidate discloses where he got all his money. Vote to protect your job, if your candidate doesn't get paid by your employer. Vote to protect your kids against bad medical research, if your candidate doesn't work for big drug company. Or better yet: run for office yourself.

And for fuck's sake, vote in local elections on local issues. Your alderman can't change foreign policy, but she can decide whether your alley gets paved this year, which might be more relevant to you.

To sum up: The "right" doesn't actually oppose the center or the left on philosophical or policy grounds. They oppose everyone on avaricious grounds. The religion and morality are just camouflage, meant to get votes from the very people they're stealing the most from.

A vote for the modern, movement-conservative Republican Party, or the Brexit-addled UK Conservative Party, or the Canadian Conservative Party (seeing a pattern?), is a vote for aristocracy and against your retirement account. (And hey, for everyone who isn't a trader on Wall Street, how did your private 401(k) accounts work out for you? Yeah, me neither.) It's really that simple.

If you really can only manage to vote on a single issue, then vote against thieves. We can find common ground on policy. We can't find common ground if someone else steals the land.

The sack of Kurdistan

Could President Trump be not only a very stable genius, but a strategic one as well, for pulling American troops out of Syria ? I mean, given the obvious consequences of our pull-out (i.e., Russia and Turkey carving up Kurdistan), the alternative explanation is that the Situation Room this week looked a lot like Sir Bedevere explaining to King Arthur how the wooden rabbit trick would work.

Maybe his 71-minute oration at his cabinet meeting yesterday could give us more information about his state of mind and battlefield thinking:

“We have a good relationship with the Kurds. But we never agreed to, you know, protect the Kurds. We fought with them for 3½ to four years. We never agreed to protect the Kurds for the rest of their lives.”

Trump misleadingly frames the agreement as the “rest of their lives.” But the United States had certainly made a deal with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which lost 11,000 soldiers in defeating the Islamic State, after being trained and equipped by the United States. (Turkey considers elements of this force to be a terrorist threat.) To prevent a Turkish invasion, the United States persuaded the SDF to pull back up to nine miles from the Turkish border. In August, the SDF destroyed its own military posts after assurances the United States would not let thousands of Turkish troops invade. But then Trump tossed that aside.

“I don’t think you people, with this phony emoluments clause — and by the way, I would say that it’s cost me anywhere from $2 billion to $5 billion to be president — and that’s okay — between what I lose and what I could have made.”

The emoluments clause is not phony; it’s right in the Constitution (Article I, Section 9, Paragraph 8): “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

Trump’s net worth is valued at $3 billion, so it’s difficult to see how being president could cost him even more than his net worth. Bloomberg News recently estimated that his net worth grew 5 percent in 2018, following two years of declines, bringing it back to the level calculated in 2016. Forbes calculated that as of September, his net worth is $3.1 billion.

So, my conclusion, based on this tiny bit of evidence (and the years of evidence that came before) is that the president is a narcissistic idiot. Why are we still talking about impeachment when the 25th Amendment makes more sense? Oh, right. The Republican Party.