The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Facebook is as Facebook does

Josh Marshall points out that the harm Facebook causes comes from its basic design, making a quick fix impossible:

First, set aside all morality. Let’s say we have a 16 year old girl who’s been doing searches about average weights, whether boys care if a girl is overweight and maybe some diets. She’s also spent some time on a site called AmIFat.com. Now I set you this task. You’re on the other side of the Facebook screen and I want you to get her to click on as many things as possible and spend as much time clicking or reading as possible. Are you going to show her movie reviews? Funny cat videos? Homework tips? Of course, not. If you’re really trying to grab her attention you’re going to show her content about really thin girls, how their thinness has gotten them the attention of boys who turn out to really love them, and more diets. If you’re clever you probably wouldn’t start with content that’s going to make this 16 year old feel super bad about herself because that might just get her to log off. You’ll inspire or provoke enough negative feelings to get clicks and engagement without going too far.

This is what artificial intelligence and machine learning are. Facebook is a series of algorithms and goals aimed at maximizing engagement with Facebook. That’s why it’s worth hundreds of billions of dollars. It has a vast army of computer scientists and programmers whose job it is to make that machine more efficient. The truth is we’re all teen girls and boys about some topic. Maybe the subject isn’t tied as much to depression or self-destructive behavior. Maybe you don’t have the same amount of social anxiety or depressive thoughts in the mix. But the Facebook engine is designed to scope you out, take a psychographic profile of who you are and then use its data compiled from literally billions of humans to serve you content designed to maximize your engagement with Facebook.

Put in those terms, you barely have a chance.

He goes on to draw a comparison between Facebook's executives and Big Tobacco's, circa 1975:

At a certain point you realize: our product is bad. If used as intended it causes lung cancer, heart disease and various other ailments in a high proportion of the people who use the product. And our business model is based on the fact that the product is chemically addictive. Our product is getting people addicted to tobacco so that they no longer really have a choice over whether to buy it. And then a high proportion of them will die because we’ve succeeded.

So what to do? The decision of all the companies, if not all individuals, was just to lie. What else are you going to do? Say we’re closing down our multi-billion dollar company because our product shouldn’t exist?

You can add filters and claim you’re not marketing to kids. But really you’re only ramping back the vast social harm marginally at best. That’s the product. It is what it is.

Yesterday's 6-hour reprieve from Facebook seems to have hurt almost no one. The jokes started right away, about how anti-vaxxers could no longer "do research" and how people have started reading again. I didn't even notice until I read that it had gone offline, because I had too much work to do. So maybe that's what regulators should do: limit the company to 8 hours a day or something. What a thought...

First Monday of October

The United States Supreme Court began their term earlier today, in person for the first time since March 2020. Justice Brett Kavanagh (R) did not attend owing to his positive Covid-19 test last week.

In other news:

So how did facebook.com disappear from root DNS, the day after 60 Minutes aired a segment on Haugen?

End leaf blowers now!

James Fallows and I share a hatred of the infernal machines:

Pound for pound, gallon for gallon, and hour-for-hour, the two-stroke gas powered engines in leaf blowers and similar equipment are vastly the dirtiest and most polluting kind of machinery still in legal use.

How can such little engines do so much damage? It’s all about technological progress, and the lack of it:

Over the past 50 years, gasoline engines for trucks and automobiles have become so much more efficient that they have reduced most of their damaging emissions-per-mile by at least 95 percent. This is not even to mention the rapid onset of electric-powered vehicles.

Two-stroke engines, by contrast, are based on long-obsolete technology that inefficiently burns a slosh of oil and gasoline, and pumps out much of the unburned fuel as toxic aerosols.

There is an obvious, rapidly improving alternative. That is battery-powered equipment (to say nothing of rakes).

I want them banned in Chicago. Let's start here.

Why Biden's plan matters

Forget the amount (especially because the headlines completely mis-state the value), the "human infrastructure" bill winding through Congress right now matters in all the places it needs to:

Over the past few decades there has been a redistribution of dignity — upward. From Reagan through Romney, the Republicans valorized entrepreneurs, C.E.O.s and Wall Street. The Democratic Party became dominated by the creative class, who attended competitive colleges, moved to affluent metro areas, married each other and ladled advantages onto their kids so they could leap even further ahead.

There was a bipartisan embrace of a culture of individualism, which opens up a lot of space for people with resources and social support, but means loneliness and abandonment for people without. Four years of college became the definition of the good life, which left roughly two-thirds of the country out.

And so came the crisis that Biden was elected to address — the poisonous combination of elite insularity and vicious populist resentment.

The Democratic spending bills are economic packages that serve moral and cultural purposes. They should be measured by their cultural impact, not merely by some wonky analysis. In real, tangible ways, they would redistribute dignity back downward. They would support hundreds of thousands of jobs for home health care workers, child care workers, construction workers, metal workers, supply chain workers. They would ease the indignity millions of parents face having to raise their children in poverty.

The Republican Party have no similar policies. In fact, their policies would accelerate the "distribution of dignity" upward, even while they blamed the results on the Democrats. The reconciliation bill will help millions of Americans. And, oh yeah, it might even win us a couple of elections.

Shoot the f**ing hostage already

I don't usually agree with Josh Marshall's panics. He cries "wolf" every time he passes the zoo. But you have to remember, every time he points to a wolf, there's a wolf. And based on his reporting for the last couple of days, I agree that if Senators Manchin (D?-WV) and Sinema (D?-AZ) don't get behind their own President's agenda, then maybe the President needs to paint them with their own sabotage:

Sen. Manchin just put out a statement, scorching in its appraisal of the proposed reconciliation bill and making me think for the first time that this entire thing – both bills – may go down in flames. It’s a lot of the same stuff: debt, inflation, mean taxations, means-testing. But the volume is turned … well, up to 11. It’s not remotely the statement of someone who is on the verge of finding common ground with the rest of the caucus.

Through this whole saga Manchin has been riffing, saying what comes into his head on a given day. There’s no real strategy or logic to it. That’s why there’s little consistency. But the riffing, the saying what comes into your head each given day is particularly perilous at a moment like this. Because you’re navigating with emotion. You’re navigating with the consensus of establishment Washington which has been dour at best on President Biden since mid-summer.

There was a deal, an agreed upon framework. The Manchin-Sinema-Gottheimer troika got their bill. And as soon as they did they backed out of the deal. That is how we got here. We knew it would be hard to come to an agreement, a lot of tense moments and standoffs. What we’ve actually seen is rather different. They’re not having a hard time coming to an agreement. The troika is refusing to negotiate.

Obviously, the problem with the Democratic Party is that we try to negotiate in good faith, and we get all ferklempt when the other guys fuck us. So maybe we should just continue to negotiate in good faith and not act surprised when the other guys fuck us, especially when the guys doing the fucking claim to be members of our party. Like, you can offer a good-faith negotiation and still have a baseball bat in your left hand. Don't start the fight, but FFS, end it.

What if we just ejected Sinema and Manchin from the party and painted them with the failure of Congress to pass legislation that an overwhelming majority of Americans want passed? What if we just started acting like we won every election since 2006?

Someday, good historians will figure out what actually happened in the mid-21st Century. I may even live long enough to read those histories. And I hope against reason that those well-researched histories find strong evidence that people like Manchin and Sinema voted against the will of most Americans because they believed strongly and correctly in their positions at the time. But the evidence I see right now, right in front of me, says that Sinema and Manchin have no such integrity.

Manchin, maybe he gets a pass. He has a tough gig right now as an out Democrat in West Virginia, though given the behavior of the Republican Party there for the past 10 years I can't think why. (By that I mean, I cannot think of any organization more hostile to the interests of ordinary West Virginia workers than the Republican party.) And yet, West Virginia workers keep voting for the people who keep them in poverty. Manchin may believe that he can help his constituents by holding up a bill that could pay for their child care, but I'm having trouble following his logic.

Sinema, though.

Hey, Senator Durbin? I've voted for you a bunch of times, could you please do your job and whip Sinema into line like the Majority Whip is supposed to do? She's polling in the 40s in her home state. There's some whippin' to do.

Here's the thing. The Democratic Party believes we Americans are better than this, and the Republican Party keeps trying to get people to believe we aren't. That's why the Republicans have only won one national election since 1988. Because we are better than this.

We're more ready for a true left-of-center party than we've been since TR. If Sinema and Manchin blow up this administration, it's time for a new party.

I love it when people point to Lyndon Johnson's presidency and how he controlled the agenda without acknowledging that the Democratic Party had 68 Senate seats and a similar majority in the House. Oh, and many of those guys were white supremacists who promptly left the party after Johnson forced them to vote for the Civil Rights Act. Also, Johnson had a progressive Supreme Court and not a lot of pushback from the communities of color who were just trying not to get their heads bashed in whenever they protested the injustices they faced daily.

Yes, I'm saying that the Civil Rights Act was easier to pass in an unjust era, for the same reason the 13th Amendment passed before Appomattox. When you're losing, you prioritize the things you're giving away to hold on to what you can.

The Republican Party is doing exactly that. Let me repeat myself: when you're losing, you prioritize the things you're giving away to hold on to what you can. The behavior of the Republican Party over the last 20 years is exactly that. They can't win on policy, so they've stopped telling people why they want power, because the "why" would lose votes. They just keep grabbing power, any way they can, because they know they won't get their agenda through otherwise.

A healthy democracy requires a healthy debate. We don't have that right now. I'm worried we've lost it permanently, but hopeful we haven't. Regardless, "healthy debate" means the Republican Party needs to explain what they want, as does the Democratic Party, and let the people decide. And if the people overwhelmingly reject your point of view, you sit down and reformulate your argument. This, I submit, is why the Republican Party refuses to state its position: because most people disagree.

Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent. What does it tell you that the Republican Party keeps trying it?

Union Pacific gets court permission to stop operating Metra trains

The Union Pacific Railroad, which currently operates about 35% of all Chicago commuter trains, has won a major ruling from a Federal judge that clears the way for it to stop operating those trains:

UP wants out of the commuter business, saying it wants to focus on its its freight service. It has noted that almost all other Metra service now is operated by the commuter rail agency itself, sometimes on tracks it owns itself and at other times on track leased from freight railroads. 

Metra’s position is that in the absence of a discontinuance agreement, UP had to continue to run the trains and ancillary services, such as ticket collection, under “common carrier” provisions that governed railroads nationally for more than a century.

Both sides asked Judge Jorge Alonso for summary judgement. Last week he ruled against Metra.

Effectively, Alonso held, common-carrier rules were substantially eased after the creation of Amtrak, the national passenger carrier, and other deregulation actions by Congress in recent decades. Any remaining common-carrier question that requires federal approval would under the law cover only freight, not passenger, service, he added, but UP is moving to stop only commuter service, not freight.

In a statement, Metra said only that “We are reviewing the ruling and our options.”

UP in its own statement promised not to do anything abrupt that would interfere with service.

Well, that's fun. In 2019, the three Metra lines UP operates had about 27 million of the entire network's 74 million passenger trips, including (I estimate) about 300 of mine, so there is no way the lines will simply shut down. Metra will almost certainly take over operations and pay UP for track and signal use, just like they do on other lines. We'll see how this plays out.

Joni Mitchell was right

Chicago's Navy Pier organization wants to cut down the trees and put 'em in a tree museum:

Navy Pier’s Crystal Gardens could be removed and replaced with what’s billed as “the next generation in immersive entertainment” — but a petition to save it has racked up more than 15,000 signatures.

Crystal Gardens is a 1-acre indoor garden that is free and accessible to the public. It’s often used as a venue for events or for people to stop by and escape chilly weather.

But a new attraction is set to take its place: Illuminarium, which uses projected images, sound, scents and vibrations to give paying visitors the sense they are in different places, like Africa. The change has already been approved by the city.

“Illuminarium promises to be an exciting experience center that will enhance Navy Pier’s visitation and educational strengths,” said spokeswoman Madeline Sweeney.

Sweeney said Navy Pier has developed free green space at other spots on the pier — including at the 15-acre Polk Bros Park — but Crystal Gardens is “underused” and the nonprofit must develop attractions to help businesses there.

“We understand that some guests may have an attachment to Crystal Gardens and appreciate their concern,” Sweeney said.

We appreciate Sweeney's insincerity. And, let's face it, I wouldn't send a tourist to Navy Pier unless the rest of the city had disappeared into a space-time rift. But this makes the space-time rift that much more appealing.

Sure Happy It's Tuesday

Actually, I'm ecstatic that a cold front blew in off the lake yesterday afternoon, dropping the temperature from 30°C to 20°C in about two hours. We went from teh warmest September 27th in 34 years to...autumn. Finally, some decent sleepin' weather!

Meanwhile:

And though the article could use an editor, Whisky Advocate has a short bit on Aaron Sorkin's love of whisky in his movies.

Monday lunchtime reading

Just a couple today, but they seem interesting:

And wow, did the Chicago Bears have a bad game yesterday.

Beautiful autumn morning

I've opened nearly every window in my house to let in the 15°C breeze and really experience the first real fall morning in a while. Chicago will get above-normal temperatures for the next 10 days or so, but in the beginning of October that means highs in the mid-20s and lows in the mid-teens. Even Cassie likes the change.

Since I plan to spend nearly every moment of daylight outside for the rest of this weekend, I want to note a few things to read this evening when I come back inside:

Finally, if you really want to dig into some cool stuff in C# 10, Scott Hanselman explains implicit namespace support.