The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Predicting the future based on history

This morning, the Labor Department reported 2.1 million new unemployment claims, bringing the total to almost 41 million since the pandemic hit the US. As horrifying as that number is, I actually wanted to highlight two articles that appeared today.

The first, by Trump biographer Tony Schwartz in Medium, warns us that having a psychopathic president makes November's election "a true Armageddon:"

The trait that most distinguishes psychopaths is the utter absence of conscience — the capacity to lie, cheat, steal and inflict pain to achieve his ends without a scintilla of guilt or shame, as Trump so demonstrably does. What Trump’s words and behavior make clear is that he feels no more guilt about hurting others than a lion does about killing a giraffe.

What makes Trump’s behavior challenging to fathom is that our minds are not wired to understand human beings who live far outside the norms, rules, laws and values that the vast majority of us take for granted. Conscience, empathy and concern for the welfare of others are all essential to the social contract. Conscience itself reflects an inner sense of obligation to behave with honesty, fairness, and care for others, along with a willingness to express contrition if we fall short of those ideals, and especially when we harm others.

So what does all this tell us about how we can expect Trump to behave going forward? The simple answer is worse. His obsession with domination and power have prompted Trump to tell lies more promiscuously than ever since he became president, and to engage in ever more unfounded and aggressive responses aimed at anyone he perceives stands in his way.

In the end, Trump does what he does because he is who he is, immutably.

Trump revels in attention, domination and cruelty. “The sociopath wants to manipulate and control you,” explains Martha Stout, “and so you are rewarding and encouraging him each and every time you allow him to see your anger, confusion or your hurt.” Even so, in order to protect our democracy and our shared humanity, it’s critical to push back, calmly and persistently, against every single lie Trump tells, and every legal and moral boundary he violates. We must resist what Hanna Arendt has called “the banality of evil” — the numbness and normalizing that so easily sets in when unconscionable acts become commonplace. “Under conditions of terror, most people will comply,” Arendt has written, “but some people will not.”

Understanding what we’re truly up against — the reign of terror that Trump will almost surely wage the moment he believes he can completely prevail — makes the upcoming presidential election a true Armageddon.

The second, from Jeremy Peters at the New York Times, reviews a 1991 book by William Strauss and Neil Howe that predicted the "Crisis of 2020:"

Their conclusions about the way each generation develops its own characteristics and leadership qualities influenced a wide range of political leaders, from liberals like Bill Clinton and Al Gore to pro-Trump conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Stephen K. Bannon.

Seems as if they were on to something. So now what?

More insightful than the date itself was the assertion that historical patterns pointed toward the arrival of a generation-defining crisis that would force millennials into the fire early in their adulthood. (Mr. Strauss and Mr. Howe were the first to apply that term to those born in the early 1980s because they would come of age around the year 2000.)

More than just a novelty, their theory helps explain why some of the most prominent voices calling for political reform from left, center and right have been young — Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 30; Pete Buttigieg, 38; Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, 40.

And as baby boomers continue to age out of public service, the theory says, fixing the problems created by the pandemic will fall to this younger, civically oriented generation. Mr. Howe, who at 68 is a member of the cohort he is critical of, said in an interview that it was no coincidence that the boomer president and many people in his generation — especially the more conservative ones — have generally taken a more lax attitude toward the coronavirus than younger people.

But now, I have to debug an Azure function app...

The grim reaper's league table

We hit a new milestone today. So, to put things in perspective, here are the number of Americans who have died from:

  • European genocide of Native Americans (1492-1900), ~25 million over 500 years
  • Motor vehicle accidents (1899-2018), 3.8 million over 119 years
  • Firearms (intentional or accidental, 1968-2018), ~1.4 million over 50 years
  • Civil War (1861-1865), 755,000 over 48 months
  • Influenza pandemic (1918-1919), 675,000 over 15 months
  • World War II (1941-1945), 418,500 over 45 months
  • World War I (1917-1918), 116,516 over 20 months
  • Covid-19 (2020), 100,000 over 4 months
  • Vietnam War (1955-1975), 58,209 over 20 years
  • Galveston, Texas, hurricane (1900), ~12,000 over 3 days
  • 9/11 (2001), 2,996 in one day

I don't have time to do the math, but I believe Covid-19 comes second on the list in deaths per day after the 1918 pandemic. Imagine if we'd actually started fighting it earlier.

Many whine! Much sad!

The most powerful man in the world threw a hissy fit yesterday when Twitter finally—finally!—slapped a misinformation warning on one of his lies:

President Donald Trump on Wednesday threatened social media companies with new regulation or even shuttering a day after Twitter added fact checks to two of his tweets.

The president can’t unilaterally regulate or close the companies, which would require action by Congress or the Federal Communications Commission. But that didn't stop Trump from angrily issuing a strong warning.

Claiming tech giants “silence conservative voices,” Trump tweeted, “We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen.”

Trump and his campaign angrily lashed out Tuesday after Twitter added a warning phrase to two Trump tweets that called mail-in ballots “fraudulent” and predicted that “mail boxes will be robbed,” among other things. Under the tweets, there is now a link reading “Get the facts about mail-in ballots” that guides users to a Twitter “moments” page with fact checks and news stories about Trump’s unsubstantiated claims.

Trump replied on Twitter, accusing the platform of “interfering in the 2020 Presidential Election” and insisting that “as president, I will not allow this to happen.” His 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, said Twitter’s “clear political bias” had led the campaign to pull “all our advertising from Twitter months ago.” Twitter has banned all political advertising since last November.

Since the only response that people of any intelligence should give this malarkey is laughter, I present to you the president's own words as lip-synced by comedian Sarah Cooper:

Day 71

It's a little comforting to realize that we've only dealt with Covid-19 social distancing rules about 5% as long as we dealt with World War II (1,345 days from 7 December 1941 to 13 August 1945). It's still a grind.

In the news today:

Finally, perhaps jealous of Mayor Lori Lightfoot's memes, Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle put this out on Facebook recently:

Strange juxtapositions in CD library explained

I'm still plowing through all the CDs I bought over the years, now up to #55 which I got in November 1988. It's a 1957 recording of the Robert Shaw Chorale performing various Christmas carols. (Remember, remember, I got it in November.)

This comes between Billy Joel's Piano Man and Glenn Gould performing Bach's Inventions and Sinfonias. Then I'll get Simon & Garfunkel, Mozart, William Byrd, and Haydn.

At least part of this strangeness comes from my experience as a music major during my first year at university, when the music department announced a new requirement for every music major to take a listening exam every year. They published four lists, one for each school year, effectively giving students up to 3½ years to listen to all 100 works. The list drove a lot of my CD purchases while there.

In mid-April, you'd go to the music library and listen to a cassette with 60-second excerpts of music. (I think there were 50 excerpts.) You got one point for naming the composer, a point for naming the work, and if applicable, a point for identifying the movement. To pass the exam, you had to get 80% of the total points available.

Here are some of the works on the 1988-89 list:

  • Bach, Cantata #4, "Christ lag in Todesbanden"
  • Beethoven, Symphony #6
  • Mozart, Requiem K626 (but only the "Introitus," "Kyrie," and "Dies Irae")
  • Varèse, Ionisation
  • Verdi, La Traviata

The lists got progressively more difficult, with the 1991-92 list containing obscurities like Schubert's Der Erlkönig and Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #2.

The music faculty believed, quite reasonably, that musicians should have some passing familiarity with these 100 works for the same reason one would expect an English major to know a few Shakespeare plays or a computer-science major could explain the bubble-sort algorithm to a non-major. It's called the canon.

In April 1989, I was the only music major to pass the exam. I didn't take the 1990 exam because I'd switched majors; but in 1991, the music department asked me to take the exam again as a control, because in 1990 no one passed the first time. Once again, I was the only person to pass the first time out.

I just couldn't fathom why. Each list had such variety, just knowing the pieces on them should give you 67% of the right answers without even trying. For example, the 1990 exam included polar opposites Berg's Wozzeck and Brahms' piano quintet in f-minor. You'd think someone could easily distinguish them. If I recall correctly, the department even let people bring in the list after the 1989 debacle. So you could just look at the list and decide whether the thing you're listening to is atonal singing in German with orchestra or a small ensemble with four strings and a piano. Or if it's a choral work instead of a massive symphony. Or if it's something by Bach or something by Ives.

It was about this time that I started worrying for the future of the arts.

If you're interested, here's the 1988-89 list. If you know anything about classical music, you should be able to identify most of these works.

Fatal moments in crew resource management

If the initial reports prove correct, the fatal crash of Pakistan International Airlines flight 8303 on Friday may have resulted from the pilots missing a key line-item in their landing checklist:

On May 24th 2020 Pakistan's media quote a CAA official speaking on condition of anonymity that the aircraft made two attempts to land. During the first approach it appears the landing gear was still retracted when the aircraft neared the runway, the pilot had not indicated any anomaly or emergency, emergency services thus did not respond and did not foam the runway as would be done in case of a gear malfunction. The marks on the runway between 4500 feet and 7000 feet down the runway suggest the engines made contact with the runway surface, it is possible that the engines were damaged during that contact with the runway surface leading even to possibly fire.

On May 24th 2020 a spokesman of the airline said, the landing gear had not been (partially or fully) lowered prior to the first touch down. The crew did not call out the standard operating procedures for an anomaly and no emergency was declared. Most likely the crew was not mentally prepared for a belly landing and went around when they realized the engines were scraping the runway.

Gear-up landings do happen, though very rarely. Airports have procedures for mitigating damage and loss of life in these situations, starting with foaming the runway and having emergency equipment standing by. That neither pilot of PK-8303 called "mayday" until they had already destroyed their engines, and that the plane had an extreme nose-up angle of attack in its final moments*, suggests a serious training issue.

* The high nose-up angle would have increased drag and shortened the plane's glide to the airport. The A320 probably has a best-glide AoA around 4° nose up; anything higher, and the plane will slow down and lose altitude more quickly.

Grabbing the loot with both hands

Perhaps knowing that they only have a few more months to steal billions from American taxpayers, the president and his allies have used the pandemic to award huge no-bid contracts to their friends:

Several weeks ago, President Donald Trump forced the Food and Drug Administration to reverse a safety ruling and clear the way for one of the nation's premier defense contractors to sell, service and operate new machines that reprocess N95 face masks for health care workers.

Within two weeks, Battelle, the company that makes the machines, had a contract from the Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency to recycle masks for up to 20 uses each at locations across the country. The no-bid deal, ordered up by the White House coronavirus task force, is worth up to $600 million.

But nurses, doctors and scientists who have spoken to NBC News about Battelle's hydrogen peroxide vapor chambers said the process it uses remains unproven over long-term use and using masks cleaned by it more than a couple of times could leave front-line health care workers vulnerable to contracting the coronavirus.

There is effectively no independent oversight of the Battelle deal or others like it.

The lack of oversight means voters will have less information by which to judge the president when they go to the polls. Trump surely understands that.

But because Trump has effectively gutted oversight of his administration, only voters can hold him accountable if his decisions were bad — or made for the wrong reasons.

And the money came rolling in from every side. Reminder: populists are corporatists first. It's about the money, not the politics.

Saturday afternoon thunderstorm reading

I'm setting these aside to read after I race around my house closing windows in a few minutes:

I'm working on a longer-form entry bringing together some of the more serious books and essays I've read on our current situation.

Saturday morning news clearance

I rode the El yesterday for the first time since March 15th, because I had to take my car in for service. (It's 100% fine.) This divided up my day so I had to scramble in the afternoon to finish a work task, while all these news stories piled up:

Finally, author and Ohio resident John Scalzi sums up why he won't rush back to restaurants when they reopen in his state next week:

My plan is to stay home for most of June and let other people run around and see how that works out for them. The best-case scenario is that I’m being overly paranoid for an extra month, in which case we can all laugh about it afterward. The worst case scenario, of course, is death and pain and a lot of people with confused about why ventilator tubes are stuck down their throats, or the throats of their loved ones, when they were assured this was all a liberal hoax, and then all of us back in our houses until September. Once again, I would be delighted to be proved overly paranoid.

I have sympathy for the people who are all, the hell with this, I’ll risk getting sick, just let me out of my fucking apartment. I get where you’re coming from. You probably don’t actually know what you’re asking for. I hope that you never have to learn.

Note to Mr Scalzi: I hope to start The Last Emperox this week. I really do.

Massive security failure in Washington

A total failure to imagine a likely risk scenario has lost the State of Washington possibly hundreds of millions of dollars to thieves who defrauded the state unemployment agency:

Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine says the names of potentially thousands of Washingtonians, many who remain employed, were used to make fake unemployment claims and defraud the state of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The state was hit especially hard in the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, as state and federal benefits ramped up to handle the sharp and staggering number of claims. 

Commissioner LeVine says she will make sure victim’s rights are protected, and those where benefits were paid out to the criminals won’t be liable for any sort of repayment.

“I will say this again because it’s really important. We did not have a data breach,” said Levine. “And the information was not stolen from us. It was the utilization of stolen information on our site.”

The identity information most likely came from multiple earlier data breaches, including from credit-reporting agencies. Washington State simply didn't authenticate applications properly before disbursing money: 

“These are very sophisticated criminals who have pretty robust collections of information on people, and they are activating and monetizing that information,” [LeVine] said.

No, these are, in fact, really dumb criminals who exploited the eagerness of LeVine's department getting money to claimants before employers returned validation letters. And the fact that LeVine and her department's security folks couldn't see this possibility ahead of time means they may not have the skills to do their jobs in the Internet era.