The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Two on Trump's mindset

First, New Republic's Jeet Heer calls President Trump "truly the first TV president and a harbinger of the decline in intelligence" in American politics:

While earlier presidents, notably John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, benefited from being telegenic, they were still tied to an earlier, pre-television world in ways that Trump isn’t. (If Kennedy was the magazine-star president, Reagan was the film-star president.) He’s a pure product of the age of television, someone whose mental horizon is the screen. And television isn’t just a passive medium for Trump, his main source for understanding how Americans think. As the star of the long-running reality show The Apprentice, where he played the tough, no-nonsense boss who relishes firing people, Trump actively used TV to shape how millions of Americans think of him.

The key insight of the McLuhan school is that print culture is deliberative, while television is performative. Typographical fixity preserves, and gives a certain permanence to, written thought. It doesn’t just transmit information; it creates habits of thought, and encourages the cross-examination of ideas. On television, by contrast, everything is in a perpetual present, an endless flux. No wonder Trump, a master of television, has no permanence of thought. He shifts his positions depending on opportunistic ambitions or passing whim, sometimes motivated by nothing more than a desire to echo whom he is talking to. Indeed, sometimes his ideas are little more than echoes of what he sees on Fox.

In last year’s election, nearly 63 million Americans supported a presidential candidate who was proudly post-literate. This is a testimony to the rising right-wing anti-intellectualism in the U.S., where being well read and well educated is not to be admired—or even something to aspire to—but rather bestows the black mark of elitism. The question remains: Is this a passing trend, or just a sign of things to come? The dumbing-down of American life, as traced by McLuhan and his descendants, suggests the latter. Just as Bush seems downright scholarly compared to Trump, we may one day look back at Trump and admire his ability to follow a teleprompter.

Meanwhile, Josh Marshall sounds another alarm at Trump's increasing militarism and always-present authoritarianism:

What we’re seeing today from President Trump is a very specific danger with the militarization of civic culture: an anti-democratic leader can use military sacrifice as a totem to squelch dissent.

[A]s [a Twitter image of a disabled Marine in uniform] is used here, you can see the whole mindset, use of loss and blood as a cudgel in its most brutal form. The act of protest is enrolled as a specific disrespect of this man who has had his body ripped apart in military violence. Images like this, combined with these words, are meant to inspire rage at the targets of the attack.  Guilt, admiration and vicarious horror are transmuted not simply into opposition but rage at dissenters.

[T]he weaponization of betrayed military sacrifice is a common, almost universal feature of rightist political movements.

Yep. And it works, if enough of the polity believes it. I hope we can get through this ugly phase of our history intact. And I'm not even commenting on James Fallows' shock at Trump railing on about black NFL players.

On assholes and disagreements

Two articles crossed my laptop today. First, from New York, Stanford professor Robert Sutton makes an argument that "we are living in Peak Asshole:"

Sutton doesn’t want to be, you know, an asshole: “Most of politics is everybody calling everybody else assholes.” And assholism, after all, is contagious. “Nasty behavior spreads much faster than nice behavior, unfortunately,” Sutton says. As he points out in his book, research shows that even a “single exposure” to negative behavior, like receipt of an insulting email, can turn a person into a “carrier.” “Literally like a common cold,” he adds. Similarly, when the president calls his detractors “haters and losers” in a tweet, when the wallpaper of life is made up of faces that belong to certified assholes like Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Don Jr., etc., etc., ad infinitum, it most likely has a trickle-down effect. “The more assholes you’re around, the more asshole-y you get.” But there are other factors that have led to this explosion of assholes, Sutton points out, everything from heat and crowding to imbalances in power and the wealth gap. “The research says that when we’re in those situations, there’s envy going up, and sort of disdain goes down.” Research also shows that technology has increased the “asshole problem,” as Sutton puts it, because people are much more likely to be mean if they don’t have to make eye contact. And because technology has created the expectation for things to happen faster, and at all hours of the day, hurriedness and sleep deprivation have become major factors.

Although the new book seems exceptionally well timed, Sutton finished writing before the election, and he notes in it that he doesn’t buy into the adage that assholes finish first. The presence of a major-league asshole in the Oval Office would seem to prove him wrong, but Sutton stands by this theory. “The evidence generally is that when you treat people badly, the only time it really seems to work is if you’re in a zero-sum game and it’s a shorter-term game,” he explains. “And my perspective is that even if you’re in the zero-sum game, where the assholes get ahead, there’s all this negative carnage. The people around them, their physical and mental health and personal relationships, they all suffer. And I don’t want to go to Trump too much, but God, look how many people he’s gone through.” In the long run, he concludes, “people who treat each other with some civility generally do better.”

Very much in the same vein, New York Times op-ed columnist Bret Stephens gave a lecture in Sydney, Australia, on Saturday about the dying art of disagreement:

To say the words, “I agree” — whether it’s agreeing to join an organization, or submit to a political authority, or subscribe to a religious faith — may be the basis of every community.

But to say, I disagree; I refuse; you’re wrong; etiam si omnes — ego non — these are the words that define our individuality, give us our freedom, enjoin our tolerance, enlarge our perspectives, seize our attention, energize our progress, make our democracies real, and give hope and courage to oppressed people everywhere. Galileo and Darwin; Mandela, Havel, and Liu Xiaobo; Rosa Parks and Natan Sharansky — such are the ranks of those who disagree.

And the problem, as I see it, is that we’re failing at the task.

There’s no one answer [about why this is happening]. What’s clear is that the mis-education begins early. I was raised on the old-fashioned view that sticks and stones could break my bones but words would never hurt me. But today there’s a belief that since words can cause stress, and stress can have physiological effects, stressful words are tantamount to a form of violence. This is the age of protected feelings purchased at the cost of permanent infantilization.

The mis-education continues in grade school. As the Brookings findings indicate, younger Americans seem to have no grasp of what our First Amendment says, much less of the kind of speech it protects. This is a testimony to the collapse of civics education in the United States, creating the conditions that make young people uniquely susceptible to demagogy of the left- or right-wing varieties.

Both articles are worth reading.

Who needs privacy?

Republican Illinois governor Bruce Rauner, the best governor we have right now, vetoed a bill that would have required companies to get affirmative consent from consumers before selling their geolocation data:

“The bill is not overreaching,” said Chris McCloud, a spokesman for the Digital Privacy Alliance, a Chicago-based nonprofit advocating for state-level privacy legislation. “It is merely saying, ‘If you’re going to sell my personal geolocation data, then just tell me upfront that’s what you are going to do so I can make a decision as to whether I want to download this app or not.’ ”

The Federal Trade Commission has issued general guidance, and there are a variety of industry self-regulatory codes of conduct, from automakers to online advertisers, but federal law does not provide clear geolocation privacy protection.

The online advertising industry increasingly depends on tracking consumers to serve up lucrative and effective targeted ads. Data collection enables advertisers to learn everything from your search habits and recent purchases to where you travel, often in real time.

Remember: you're the product, not the customer. And that's how Republicans like it.

Illiberalism on campuses

Via Andrew Sullivan's essay today in New York, Brookings released a poll this week that shows disturbing trends among college students' attitudes about free speech:

[A]mong many current college students there is a significant divergence between the actual and perceived scope of First Amendment freedoms. More specifically, with respect to the questions explored above, many students have an overly narrow view of the extent of freedom of expression. For example, a very significant percentage of students hold the view that hate speech is unprotected. In addition, a surprisingly large fraction of students believe it is acceptable to act—including resorting to violence—to shut down expression they consider offensive. And a majority of students appear to want an environment that shields them from being exposed to views they might find offensive.

We don’t need to turn middle and high school students into experts on constitutional law. But we can do a better job of giving them a fuller explanation of the scope of the First Amendment, and the fact that it protects the expression of offensive views. And, I would hope that we can do a better job at convincing current and future college students that the best way to respond to offensive speech is with vigorous debate, or peaceful protest—and not, as many seem to believe, with violence.

Sullivan thinks about the results:

Today’s students neither comprehend nor support the very concept of free speech, which is foundational to a liberal democracy. A full 19 percent even believe that physical violence is now justifiable to shut down speakers who engage in the vaguely defined term “hate speech.” That’s one in five students endorsing physical coercion. Antifa really is making headway, isn’t it? A small majority, 51-49, supports shouting down speakers you disagree with — and that goes to 62 percent of students who identify as Democrats.

We often discuss these things in the media without understanding the core ideas that animate them. But it’s important to understand that for the social-justice left, there is nothing irrational about any of this. If you take their ideas seriously, oppressive speech is violence and self-defense is legitimate. Violence is therefore not some regrettable incident. Violence to achieve liberation is a key part of the ideology they believe in.

Put another way, intolerance for opposing views is no longer just a feature of the right.

Meet the Plimp

Via AVWeb, a company in Seattle is making an old kind of drone:

Two brothers in Seattle, working as Egan Airships, have built a drone that combines features from both fixed-wing aircraft and blimps to create an aircraft that can hover, take off and land vertically, and fly at up to 40 mph. The 28-foot-long aircraft weighs less than 55 pounds and uses a patented streamlined envelope design, rotational wings and an extended tail. It’s powered on both the wings and the tail.

The inflated portion of the Plimp aircraft is filled with helium, which is not flammable, and provides part of the lift, which is supplemented by lift created by the rotational wings. Due to its buoyancy, the company says, the Plimp is more efficient than helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft for surveillance and inspection operations. The aircraft is highly visible for miles, so line-of-sight rules can be adhered to for much greater distances than conventional drones, the company said. Its size and visibility also enhance collision avoidance. The aircraft can be operated remotely by a pilot and flight technician, and does not require a runway or launch/recovery system to operate.

Here's the company's video about the aircraft:

Really gross September weather

It can get warm in Chicago in September, but not usually this warm. The forecast today calls for 34°C with a dewpoint above 21°C, the epitome of the worst July weather we get here.

The culprits are the tropical systems currently destroying islands in the Atlantic. A dome of unseasonably warm air has stalled over the eastern US and Canada, because Jose and Maria are dumping energy into the air right off shore.

So, today's temperatures will be 12°C above normal and will likely surpass the record 33°C set in 1970. Same tomorrow. Saturday and Sunday will also be hot but probably not quite as hot—though, I have to say, 31°C still really sucks the day after the September equinox.

The gross weather pattern should clear out by Wednesday. I really hope so; I want autumn.

Update: Yesterday's 33.3°C high also broke a record (32.7°C set in 1933).

Pirates may be to blame for the U.S. not being Metric

The Système International d'unités, also known as the Metric System, is the most widely-used system of measuring things in the known universe. Of the 7.57 billion people in the world, somewhere around 7.2 billion use SI. The laggards are almost all here in the United States.

Sarah Kaplan, writing for the Washington Post Science Alert today, blames English privateers:

In 1793, botanist and aristocrat Joseph Dombey set sail from Paris with two standards for the new "metric system": a rod that measured exactly a metre, and a copper cylinder called a "grave" that weighed precisely one kilogram.

He was journeying all the way across the Atlantic to meet Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson - a fellow fan of base-ten systems who, Dombey hoped, would help persuade Congress to go metric.

Then a storm rolled in, knocking Dombey's ship off course. The unlucky academic was washed into the Caribbean - and straight into the clutches of British pirates.

The brigands took Dombey hostage and looted his equipment. The luckless scientist died in prison shortly after his capture; his belongings were auctioned off to the highest bidders.

France sent a second emissary to promote the metric system. But by the time the replacement arrived, America had a new secretary of state, Edmund Randolph, who apparently didn't care much for measurement.

As the person who sent me this article said, perhaps the pirates just preferred saying "yarrrrd?"

But really, I put this into the same category of "American exceptionalism" that keeps us executing criminals, not getting passports, and thinking that we're somehow #1.

Maria hits Vieques head-on; Puerto Rico now getting full storm

Hurricane Maria's eye passed directly over Vieques earlier this morning and has now struck Puerto Rico proper:

Hurricane Maria roared ashore Wednesday as the strongest storm to strike Puerto Rico in more than 80 years, knocking out power to nearly the entire island and leaving frightened people huddled in buildings hoping to ride out withstand powerhouse winds that have already left death and devastation across the Caribbean.

The storm first slammed the coast near Yabucoa at 6:15 a.m. as a Category 4 hurricane with 250 km/h winds — the first Category 4 storm to directly strike the island since 1932. By midmorning, Maria had fully engulfed the 160-km-long island as winds snapped palm trees, peeled off rooftops, sent debris skidding across beaches and roads, and cut power to nearly the entire island.

In an unfortunate twist, some residents of Vieques had stocked up on critical supplies in advance of Irma only to donate what they had left to harder-hit areas such as Tortola and St. Thomas. Residents rushed to restock before deliveries to the island stopped and the power flickered off yet again.

There isn't much news coming out of Vieques yet, but having been there less than a year ago, I can't imagine that much of it remains standing. The shops and restaurants on Calle Flamboyan are (were?) less than 50 m from the beach, and barely 3 m above the Caribbean. I hope everyone got out OK.

More Caribbean islands slammed

This hurricane season may not break records for numbers or aggregate storm severity, but it will probably do so for destruction and cost. With St Martin and Barbuda all but destroyed, it looks like Vieques and Culebra are next:

Hurricane Maria went through an astonishingly quick transformation from a minimal hurricane to a Category 5 monster in less than 24 hours. As of 9 p.m. ET [Monday], Maria had maximum sustained winds of 250 km/h, and the island of Dominica was right in the path of the worst of the storm's winds. 

The National Hurricane Center has warned Maria is now a "potentially catastrophic" storm. This is the only Category 5 storm to strike Dominica on record, and may be among the fastest rates of intensification of any hurricane on record.

The National Weather Service office in San Juan issued a statement on Monday afternoon warning of the massive threat this storm poses to the island. The winds alone could cause locations to be "uninhabitable for weeks or months," the Weather Service stated, in addition to warning of a potentially deadly storm surge along the coast.

I visited Vieques in November, and I've visited St Martin twice before. I hope both islands recover quickly.

Note to Scott Adams and other climate-change deniers: The intensity and destruction of this year's hurricanes don't prove human-caused climate change. They are predicted consequences of human-caused climate change. By "predicted" I mean that, 20 or 30 years ago, climatologists warned this is exactly what would happen as the planet got warmer.