The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Overcooked

The UK has started a £100 m repatriation scheme to get stranded Thomas Cook customers home:

The government has said it will run a "shadow airline" for two weeks to repatriate the 155,000 UK tourists affected by the firm's collapse.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said its response to the crisis was "on track so far" and "running smoothly".

Mr Shapps, who earlier attended an emergency Cobra government meeting on the government's response, said: "People will experience delays, we're not running the original airline, but we intend to get this done all in the next two weeks and then end this phase of the rescue."

He also stressed people should not come home early from their holidays but should "carry on and leave on the date they were supposed to leave, having first checked the Thomas Cook website before leaving for the airport".

The government has to chip in because of the way UK bankruptcy laws work:

Had Thomas Cook been based here, it would have most likely filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and tried to reorganize while still flying. But Thomas Cook is a UK company, and that means that when the 178-year old business ran out of financing options Sunday night, it effectively just disappeared as far as the public is concerned. The UK government is solely focused on picking up the pieces in the near term while it prepares for a massive liquidation in the long run.

But:

These repatriation flights are only for those who already left the UK and needed to get back home. Everyone else just gets refunds, and that means airlines like easyJet and Jet2 are about to get a windfall of new business. TUI will pick some up as well, and I’m sure all low-cost carriers that touch the UK at all, like Ryanair and Wizz, will see a healthy uptick in bookings. But in the long run, someone is going to step up. This capacity won’t simply disappear.

So what happened? How did the company accrue billions of pounds of debt when the aviation part of their business remained profitable? Because fewer people like package tours than before:

Meanwhile, as the rescue operation kicks into gear, people are already conducting a post mortem into the death of this 178-year-old travel-industry leviathan—a British household name, with storefronts offering all-in-one resort vacations on almost every main street in the country. Among the causes, one striking possibility has emerged: Did the apparently unstoppable rise of the city break cause the company’s demise?

The rise in popularity of shorter urban breaks does indeed seem to have been a factor. In 2019, the average Briton is far more likely to be found wandering around Barcelona or Amsterdam than, say, sunbathing on the beaches of Spain’s Costa Del Sol, a 1980s favorite.

The number of Britons taking a yearly two-week vacation (a travel-agency staple, long standard because of the country’s generous vacation days) has fallen by more than 1 million since 1996. The number of short trips, meanwhile, has skyrocketed. By 2017, more than half of people in the U.K. were taking at least one short trip annually. This shift is crucial, because it meant that most growth happened in a sector where travel agents do relatively poor business.

Most of all, though, it’s the liberalization of the aviation industry in Europe since the late 1990s that has radically changed people’s destination choices. Before the advent of bargain airlines such as easyJet and Ryanair, the only really cheap flights to be had were summer charters to beach destinations, so that’s where people went. Nowadays, the volume of affordable, even obscure destinations has hugely expanded. Previously far-flung cities such as Trieste, Italy, or Riga, Latvia, are now weekend-break destinations. Travel agencies that depend on block-booking a large number of rooms in high-volume destinations find it hard to capitalize on this trend.

I'm sure AirBnB and Hipmunk contributed as well.

I always feel a little sad (or outraged) when a venerable business dies. Everyone will get home from their holidays after this mess, but a company older than a third of the states in the US is no more.

Why does Greta Thunberg bother you?

The arrival in New York this week of climate activist Greta Thunberg has thrown the Right into their version of pearl-clutching hyperventilation. Unfortunately for civil discourse, their version involves death threats and impotent rage. So why has Thunberg's quest for a reduction in climate-changing pollution make so many people so irrational?

Possibly they're hyper-masculine climate deniers, with more than a soupçon of misogyny:

In 2014, Jonas Anshelm and Martin Hultman of Chalmers published a paper analyzing the language of a focus group of climate skeptics. The common themes in the group, they said, were striking: “for climate skeptics … it was not the environment that was threatened, it was a certain kind of modern industrial society built and dominated by their form of masculinity.”

The connection has to do with a sense of group identity under threat, Hultman told me—an identity they perceive to be under threat from all sides. Besieged, as they see it, both by developing gender equality—Hultman pointed specifically to the shock some men felt at the #MeToo movement—and now climate activism’s challenge to their way of life, male reactionaries motivated by right-wing nationalism, anti-feminism, and climate denialism increasingly overlap, the three reactions feeding off of one another.

“There is a package of values and behaviors connected to a form of masculinity that I call ‘industrial breadwinner masculinity.’ They see the world as separated between humans and nature. They believe humans are obliged to use nature and its resources to make products out of them. And they have a risk perception that nature will tolerate all types of waste. It’s a risk perception that doesn’t think of nature as vulnerable and as something that is possible to be destroyed. For them, economic growth is more important than the environment” Hultman told Deutsche Welle last year.

Or perhaps it's because she's a teenager:

Thunberg and a handful of other young climate activists were receiving the Ambassador of Conscience Award from Amnesty International in Washington, D.C., last Monday. In the past 17 years, Amnesty has given the award to other icons: Nelson Mandela, Colin Kaepernick, and Ai Weiwei. Backstage, grizzled men in their 40s exchanged boisterous handclasps. Interns and assistants buzzed around: anxious, helpful, and attuned to hierarchy. Somewhere Maggie Gyllenhaal was in a dressing room.

Yet when I saw Thunberg—in jeans, sneakers, and a pink tank top—she seemed small, quiet, and somewhat overwhelmed. Thunberg has Asperger’s, which she calls her “superpower,” and which she says allows her to be more direct and straightforward about climate change.

Her answers were direct but earnest. She sometimes searched for an English word. Unlike politicians and book-touring authors who have been brain-poisoned by media training, she answered the questions posed. When I asked whether there was a climate fact that caused her particular worry, she frowned and first said she could not think of any one fact in particular. Then she added that she was worried about what she’d heard would be in the upcoming UN Intergovernmental Panel report on sea-level rise. Same, Greta.

She is strikingly nonradical, at least in tactics. Unlike other young climate activists—such as members of the Sunrise Movement in the United States, which is led by college students and early 20-somethings—she rejects specific policy proposals such as the Green New Deal, instructing politicians instead to “listen to the science.” She has even declined to endorse a specific platform in the European Union, where her “Fridays for Future” movement has taken hold. When I asked how other teenagers should fight climate change, she said, “They can do everything. There are so many ways to make a difference.” Then she gave, as examples, joining an activist movement and “also to, if you can, vote.”

Thunberg epitomizes, in a person, the unique moral position of being a teenager. She can see the world through an “adult” moral lens, and so she knows that the world is a heartbreakingly flawed place. But unlike an actual adult, she bears almost no conscious blame for this dismal state. Thunberg seems to gesture at this when referring to herself as a “child,” which she does often in speeches.

But if you just read what Thunberg says, ignoring her age, gender, and national origin--not to mention every other irrelevancy--then she makes a lot of sense. So attacking Thunberg really just exemplifies the old adage, "If the facts are against you, hammer the law. If the law is against you, hammer the facts. If the fact and the law are against you, hammer opposing counsel."

The Right are, as always, hammering opposing counsel.

The institutions held; but at what cost?

In an unprecedented decision, the UK Supreme Court ruled today that PM Boris Johnson misled the Queen when asking her to prorogue Parliament, rendering the prorogation unlawful and void:

The unanimous judgment from 11 justices on the UK’s highest court followed an emergency three-day hearing last week that exposed fundamental legal differences over interpreting the country’s unwritten constitution.

“It is for parliament, and in particular the Speaker and the Lord Speaker, to decide what to do next. Unless there is some parliamentary rule of which we are unaware, they can take immediate steps to enable each house to meet as soon as possible. It is not clear to us that any step is needed from the prime minister, but if it is, the court is pleased that his counsel have told the court that he will take all necessary steps to comply with the terms of any declaration made by this court," [said Lady Hale, president of the Supreme Court].

The court stopped short of declaring that the advice given by Johnson to the Queen was improper. It was a question. they said, they did not need to address since they had already found the effect of the prorogation was itself unlawful.

Speculation before the ruling was that the court would find against the prime minister; that they were unanimous came as a surprise.

Speaker John Bercow, in consultation with his counterpart in the Other Place and with party leaders across the House, said the House of Commons would sit tomorrow at 11am. According to the Parliamentary Calendar as of this writing (15:40 BST), nothing has been calendared, but it seems likely that things will be lively.

Guardian editor Martin Kettle hails the ruling as a triumph of Parliament:

The power to prorogue parliament has now followed, in effect, the power to make war and to make treaties. All were once prerogative powers exercised in the past by ministers on behalf of the crown, but without parliamentary scrutiny. That is no longer possible. The process that began in the court of appeal in the 1960s under Lord Reid – the development of judicial review of public law – reached its ultimate and triumphant goal this morning.

Constitutionally, this is a magisterial landmark in the assertion of parliamentary sovereignty against the residual power of the crown and ministers. But it also bolsters parliament against all the other forces that claim to have higher authority too – from referendums to the tabloid press to the crowds in the streets.

If he's correct, Parliament has the power (but not necessarily the political capital) to ignore the Brexit referendum, or call a new one, or hold an election where that's the principal question.

Seven times Johnson has challenged the institutions of the UK since becoming Prime Minister, and seven times he's lost. Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn suggested Johnson "consider his position," which is English for "resign now."

Of course, Johnson won't do that he believes he can win the next election, which will without doubt take place before the end of November. He may be right. This Parliament could win every battle and lose the war, but only because the next Parliament lets it happen.

Bad trip

Thomas Cook, founded in 1841, collapsed yesterday, stranding 150,000 people and causing the largest repatriation effort in British history:

The Civil Aviation Authority announced at 2am on Monday morning that the world’s oldest holiday company had gone into administration and that all flights and bookings had been cancelled.

The official administration was timed for the early hours when the largest number of the 94-strong fleet of planes were on the ground.

The tour operator is understood to have made a number of proposals, including asking lenders to reduce a £200m demand for extra funding and for credit card companies to release about £50m of cash they are holding as collateral against Thomas Cook bookings.

A couple planning to get married next weekend, having booked the whole thing through Thomas Cook, are among the disappointed.

False equivalence again, because of course

James Fallows calls out the press for, once again, treating two different scandals as the same:

Under normal circumstances, the press’s strong preference is for procedural balance. The program’s supporters say this, its critics say that, so we’ll quote both sides of it to you, the public, to decide who is right.

This approach has the obvious virtue of seeming fair, as a judge is fair in letting the prosecution and defense each make its case. It has a less obvious but very important advantage for news organizations, that of sparing reporters the burden of having to say, “Actually, we think this particular side is right.” By definition, most reporters most of the time are covering subjects in which we’re not expert. Is the latest prime-rate move by the Fed a good idea? Or a bad one? I personally couldn’t tell you. So if I am covering the story, especially on a deadline, I’ll want to give you quotes from people “on both sides,” and leave it there.

As an Atlantic colleague puts it: Journalism is hard; criticizing journalism is easy. In this business we’re all doing our best, and we all make mistakes in real time. But the very difficulty of these calls is why it’s worth noting a similar, as-if-we’d-learned-nothing-from-2016 case of false equivalence, which is unfolding before our eyes. This is “the Ukraine problem.”

Patient Zero of the next false-equivalence epidemic has appeared this weekend. No one can be sure of the cure, but the time to recognize the symptoms, and their source, is now.

The "scandal" of whatever Hunter Biden might have done in Ukraine a few years ago is nothing compared to the illegality of having the president's personal lawyer demand of a foreign government that Biden be investigated.

Feminist thought on smart-phone use

Via Bruce Schneier, Irish writer Maria Farrell explains how a feminist perspective leads to some creepy realizations about smart phones:

Here are some of the ways our unequal relationship with our smartphones is like an abusive relationship:

  • They isolate us from deeper, competing relationships in favour of superficial contact – ‘user engagement’ – that keeps their hold on us strong. Working with social media, they insidiously curate our social lives, manipulating us emotionally with dark patterns to keep us scrolling.
  • They tell us the onus is on us to manage their behavior. It’s our job to tiptoe around them and limit their harms. Spending too much time on a literally-designed-to-be-behaviorally-addictive phone? They send company-approved messages about our online time, but ban from their stores the apps that would really cut our use. We just need to use willpower. We just need to be good enough to deserve them.
  • They betray us, leaking data / spreading secrets. What we shared privately with them is suddenly public. Sometimes this destroys lives, but hey, we only have ourselves to blame. They fight nasty and under-handed, and are so, so sorry when they get caught that we’re meant to feel bad for them. But they never truly change, and each time we take them back, we grow weaker.

Feminists are often the canary in the coalmine, warning us years in advance of coming threats. Feminist analysis of Gamergate first exposed the online radicalization of legions of angry young men for whom misogyny was a gateway drug to far-right politics. More practically, when the US military finally realised the enemy could use running app, Strava, to track the habits and route-maps of soldiers based in hostile environments, domestic violence activists collectively sighed. They’d been pointing out for years that the app is used by stalkers and aggrieved exes to track women. I’m not the first person to notice that in cyber-security, feminism is a secret super-power. Checking every app, data-set and shiny new use-case for how men will use it to endanger women and girls is a great way to expose novel flaws and vulnerabilities the designers almost certainly missed. So, while looking at our relationship with our phones through a feminist lens may be disconcerting, it’s incredibly useful, and in a deliciously counter-intuitive way.

I'll be mulling her thoughts over for a while.

Trudeau might be toast

Yesterday, a photograph of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in brownface makeup prompted a quick apology and an excellent reply from New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh. Today, the New York Times reported that Trudeau appears in three—count 'em, three—photos showing him racially-insensitive outfits:

A Liberal Party spokesman confirmed that the young man in blackface in the video published Thursday morning by Global News was Trudeau, and said it was “from the early 1990s." Trudeau turned 20 in 1991.

The succession of revelations Wednesday evening and Thursday morning has rocked Trudeau’s campaign as he faces a tough battle for a second term. Trudeau, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Thursday, canceled his morning events.

This all happened a week into a general election campaign. Canada votes on October 12th.

A friend of mine who lives (and votes) in Montreal suggested that the Liberals may be about to ditch Trudeau in favor of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. She writes, "Would she have enough time though? It could be a strong move on the party's part, though I don't know if they have it in them. the Liberals are pretty wishy-washy establishment in my opinion. I guess that's what they are discussing this morning during the cancelled appointments."

Canadians are generally more sensitive to racism than Americans. It'll be very interesting to see what happens.

This bird has flown

A new paper in Science today reports that North America has lost 27% of its bird population since 1970, with the biggest declines in grasslands and forests. The authors of the report, ornithologists John Fitzpatrick and Peter Marra, sound the alarm:

As ornithologists and the directors of two major research institutes that directed this study, even we were shocked by the results. We knew of well-documented losses among shorebirds and songbirds. But the magnitude of losses among 300 bird species was much larger than we had expected and alarmingly widespread across the continent.

Much of the loss is among common species. The red-winged blackbird population has declined by 92 million. A quarter of all blue jays have disappeared, along with almost half of all Baltimore orioles. These are the birds we know and love, part of the bird life that makes North America lively, colorful and filled with song every spring. While it remains vital to save the most endangered of these birds, the loss of abundance among our most common species represents a different and frankly more ominous crisis.

What we need most is a societal shift in the values we place on living side-by-side with healthy and functioning natural systems. Natural habitat must not be viewed as an expendable luxury but as a crucial system that fosters human health and supports all life on the planet. The loss of nearly three billion birds signals a looming crisis that we have the power to stop. We call on all our lawmakers, political candidates and voters across the continent to place renewed value on protecting our common home—the great tapestry of natural systems we share with other species and must protect for future generations.

Unfortunately, with our current government, that seems unlikely.

A tale of two periodicals

This morning I pointed to William Langewische's essay the New York Times Magazine published this morning about the 737-MAX airplane crashes last year. Lagnewische has flown airplanes professionally and covers aviation as part of his regular beat. He has written, among other things, analyses of the Egypt Air Flight 990 suicide-murder in 1999; an entire book about the USAirways 1549 Hudson River ditching in 2009; and numerous other articles and essays of varying lengths about aviation. His father, Wolfgang, wrote one of the most widely-read books about aviation of the 20th Century.

Langewishce's essay takes a sober, in-depth approach to disentangling the public perception of Boeing and its management from the actual context of both 737-MAX crashes. While he doesn't absolve Boeing entirely, he explains how the regulatory, training, and safety mindsets (or lack thereof) in Indonesia and Ethiopia probably contributed much more to the accidents.

This afternoon comes a different perspective from the New Republic. In her first article for the magazine, New York-based writer Maureen Tkacik takes aim squarely at Boeing's management. Her tone seems a bit different than Langewische's:

In the now infamous debacle of the Boeing 737 MAX, the company produced a plane outfitted with a half-assed bit of software programmed to override all pilot input and nosedive when a little vane on the side of the fuselage told it the nose was pitching up. The vane was also not terribly reliable, possibly due to assembly line lapses reported by a whistle-blower, and when the plane processed the bad data it received, it promptly dove into the sea.

[T]here was something unsettlingly familiar when the world first learned of MCAS in November, about two weeks after the system’s unthinkable stupidity drove the two-month-old plane and all 189 people on it to a horrific death. It smacked of the sort of screwup a 23-year-old intern might have made—and indeed, much of the software on the MAX had been engineered by recent grads of Indian software-coding academies making as little as $9 an hour, part of Boeing management’s endless war on the unions that once represented more than half its employees.

But not everyone viewed the crash with such a jaundiced eye—it was, after all, the world’s first self-hijacking plane. Pilots were particularly stunned, because MCAS had been a big secret, largely kept from Boeing’s own test pilots, mentioned only once in the glossary of the plane’s 1,600-page manual, left entirely out of the 56-minute iPad refresher course that some 737-certified pilots took for MAX certification, and—in a last-minute edit—removed from the November 7 emergency airworthiness directive the Federal Aviation Administration had issued two weeks after the Lion Air crash, ostensibly to “remind” pilots of the protocol for responding to a “runaway stabilizer.”

She does mention the reputation of Indonesian aviation about mid-way through: "And so all the early hot takes about the crash concerned Indonesia’s spotty safety record and Lion Air’s even-less-distinguished one."

I searched for a few minutes to find out what experience Tkacik has flying airplanes or reporting on aviation, and while no results don't necessarily mean she has none, I would conclude from what I found that she has many different experiences.

Tkacik's take isn't entirely wrong; Boeing has some responsibility here. But the contrast between Langewische's sober, fact-based reporting and Tkacik's damn-them-all-to-hell point-of-view piece really surprised me today, as did Tkacik's choice not to report more deeply on why Boeing made certain choices, and what I find to be an over-reliance on a single source who seems to have a bone to pick with his former employer.

Of course, her article it's completely in line with the New Republic's anti-corporate editorial philosophy. Yet I found myself rolling my eyes after the first couple of paragraphs because it's so anti-corporate, and frustratingly shrill. It's why I stopped reading The Nation, another outlet Tkacik has written for, and why I find myself fact-checking Mother Jones. If everything is an outrage, and all corporations are evil, where does that leave us?

Lunchtime must-reads

Just a few today:

That's all for this afternoon. Check back tomorrow to see if Israel has a government, if Saudi Arabia decides to take its $67 bn defense budget out for a spin, or if President Trump succeeds in putting homeless people in concentration camps.