The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Did someone call "lunch?"

I think today is Tuesday, the first day of my 10th week working from home. That would make today...March 80th? April 49th? Who knows.

It is, however, just past lunchtime, and today I had shawarma and mixed news:

Earlier, I mentioned that the state's unemployment office accidentally revealed thousands of records in an own goal. Turns out, Deloitte Consulting did the work, so I am no longer surprised. Note to anyone who needs software written: don't hire a big consulting firm. They don't attract the best developers because they use manager-driven development patterns that irritate the hell out of anyone with talent.

Another time people ignored dire warnings

On 18 May 1980, forty years ago today, the Washington-state volcano Mt St Helens exploded, killing dozens of people who had been warned to evacuate days earlier:

I was 150 miles away on May 18, 1980, when Mount St. Helens blew, but my bed shook and the windows on my Oregon A-frame rattled.

I rushed to my radio station and its clacking Associated Press wire machine, and pulled up a pile of wire copy from the floor. The reports coming in from southwest Washington state were hard to believe....

Despite two months of earthquakes, ashfall, and a growing bulge on the north side of the mountain, the night before was quiet. That morning was tranquil. The cone-shaped mountain had a white mantle of snow.

U.S. Geological Survey geologist David Johnston was [10 km from the mountain]. He had a car and camper and was calling in reports to the USGS command post in Vancouver, Wash. The day before, he convinced visitors from the University of Washington to leave. They wanted to camp with him overnight. "It's too dangerous," he told them.

The death toll reached 57 and included ham radio operator Gerry Martin and USGS geologist David Johnston. All but three of those killed were outside the "red zone" established by Washington Gov. Dixy Lee Ray. Geologists had pushed for a larger area with mandatory evacuations. But pressure to shrink the danger zone was intense from cabin owners, campers and hikers, and logging companies, including Weyerhaeuser, the timber giant that owned private forests in the area.

National Geographic explains what we've learned since then:

The volcano’s defiant position out of line perches it atop a zone of rock too cold to produce the magma necessary to feed its furious blasts.

“There shouldn’t be a volcano where Mount St. Helens is,” says Seth Moran, scientist-in-charge at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington.

Four decades after Mount St. Helens’ eruption, scientists finally are unearthing some clues to its curious position. In one of the most comprehensive efforts to trace a volcano’s roots, the Imaging Magma Under St. Helens project, or iMUSH for short, used a slew of analyses to bring these subterranean secrets to light. Overall, the volcano doesn’t follow the textbook picture of a peak sitting above a chamber of molten rock. Instead, it seems, a diffuse cloud of partially molten blobs lingers deep below the surface, offset to the east of the edifice, toward the neighboring Mount Adams.

Most of the Cascade volcanoes—and others around the world—take shape above the spots where the plunging slab descends to roughly 62 miles deep, where temperatures get high enough for magma to form. But the situation is different at Mount St. Helens. Standing tens of miles to the west of other volcanoes, the infamous peak perches a mere 42 miles above the subducting plate.

Mt St Helens remains active, having erupted most recently in 2008.

Today's...uh, yesterday's articles

My day kept getting longer as it went on in a way that people living through the pandemic will understand. So I didn't have time to read any of these yesterday:

Finally, Jon Oliver has put out a line of Last Week Tonight stamps to help support the US Postal Service. So naturally I bought some.

Self-absorption

I suppose, given how long I've lived in the United States, the inability of my fellow Americans to understand anything not happening directly to them should no longer surprise me. And yet it does.

Even as Illinois passes 10,000 known cases of Covid-19 (1,453 new ones just yesterday), with 300,000 cases nationwide, the president cares only about his TV ratings. People in rural areas are dying too, but not yet in the same proportions of population we're seeing in cities.

I had a conversation yesterday with someone who echoed what right-wing propaganda has said for a while. He thinks that we're over-reacting. Essentially, he thinks the damage to the economy from our "medically-induced coma" outweighs the few thousand deaths likely from the coronavirus. To these folks, because no one they know has gotten sick or died, it can't be that bad. Or it's no worse than (pick one) the 34,200 influenza deaths we had in 2019, or the 38,800 deaths from car accidents. Of course, those 72,000 deaths happened a few here and a few there, not all at once, and not all in the same place.

People seem not to understand is how contagion and incubation works. With a 5-to-9 day period between infection and symptoms, a single person could infect dozens of others before coughing even once. Or at all, since we know that this virus sometimes doesn't cause any symptoms at all. We can also demonstrate to some degree how many deaths we have prevented by stopping the economy for a couple of weeks. Had we done nothing, we may have had 2 million deaths. As it looks now, we might get out of this with only 200,000 deaths. And that's only from Covid-19; other diseases are still killing people. Hospitals in some places have maxed out, so many people can't get the medical attention they need.

But yes, in Chicago, with everyone working from home, with the curve flattening (despite the 1,453 new cases yesterday), it looks like the cure is worse than the disease. Just like amputating a gangrenous foot might seem worse than dying of septicemia. ("But I never had septicemia! It was just a gangrenous foot, so why did you cut it off? Now I have no foot!")

Meanwhile, even though the CDC have recommended everyone wear masks outside for a few weeks, President Trump—whose malignant narcissism makes him incapable of understanding anything beyond his own interests—said he won't wear one. Good. Let that go to its logical conclusion.

Your apocalypse today

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker extended the state's stay-at-home order through April 30th, which came as absolutely no surprise, as the state nears 6,000 total COVID-19 cases. Rush Hospitals predict 19,000 total cases in Illinois a week from now—far less than the 147,000 they predict would have shown up without the stay-at-home order.

In other news:

Oh, and the stock market suffered its worst first quarter. Ever.

Life on Mars

At some point, we will probably settle on the red planet. In a fascinating article from 2018, The Atlantic wondered how we'll police it:

Consider the basic science of crime-scene analysis. In the dry, freezer-like air and extreme solar exposure of Mars, DNA will age differently than it does on Earth. Blood from blunt-trauma and stab wounds will produce dramatically new spatter patterns in the planet’s low gravity. Electrostatic charge will give a new kind of evidentiary value to dust found clinging to the exteriors of space suits and nearby surfaces. Even radiocarbon dating will be different on Mars, [UC-Davis archaeologist Christyann] Darwent reminded me, due to the planet’s atmospheric chemistry, making it difficult to date older crime scenes.

The Martian environment itself is also already so lethal that even a violent murder could be disguised as a natural act. Darwent suggested that a would-be murderer on the Red Planet could use the environment’s ambient lethality to her advantage. A fatal poisoning could be staged to seem as if the victim simply died of exposure to abrasive chemicals, known as perchlorates, in the Martian rocks. A weak seal on a space suit, or an oxygen meter that appears to have failed but was actually tampered with, could really be a clever homicide hiding in plain sight.

Imagine a criminal armed with a knife has been cornered on a Martian research base, near a critical airlock leading outside. If police fire a gun or even a Taser, they risk damaging key components of the base itself, endangering potentially thousands of innocent bystanders. Other forms of hand-to-hand combat learned on Earth might have adverse effects; even a simple punch could send both the criminal and the cop flying apart as they collide in the reduced Martian gravity. How can police overpower the fugitive without making things worse for everyone?

And then there's the surveillance....

Rainy Monday readings

After yesterday's perfect spring weather (18°C and sunny), today's gloom and rain reminds us we live in Chicago.

Also, it's eerily quiet at work...so maybe I'll also work from home the rest of the week.

Meanwhile, these crossed my (virtual) desk for reading later on:

  • Two days before testifying at a House hearing called "Holding Wells-Fargo Accountable," two of the bank's board members resigned.
  • A young woman in India who received two hand transplants from a darker-skinned person has baffled doctors as the new hands have changed color to match her native skin.
  • The Washington Post helpfully describes what smoke point means and how cooks needn't fear it.
  • Lakefront towns in Northern Indiana have sued the National Park Service for contributing to beach erosion as the Lake Michigan-Huron system goes into its third straight month of record levels.
  • And finally, the New York Times examines how the Trump Campaign took over the Republican Party in 2016.

Now back to making an app send status emails...

A century ago, in Kansas...

...the 1918-19 influenza pandemic began. Historian John M Barry studied the outbreak, summarizing his findings in a 2017 Smithsonian Magazine article that did nothing to help me feel more comfortable about our present circumstances:

At its worst, the epidemic in Philadelphia would kill 759 people...in one day. Priests drove horse-drawn carts down city streets, calling upon residents to bring out their dead; many were buried in mass graves. More than 12,000 Philadelphians died—nearly all of them in six weeks.

Across the country, public officials were lying. U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue said, “There is no cause for alarm if precautions are observed.” New York City’s public health director declared “other bronchial diseases and not the so-called Spanish influenza...[caused] the illness of the majority of persons who were reported ill with influenza.” The Los Angeles public health chief said, “If ordinary precautions are observed there is no cause for alarm.”

For an example of the press’s failure, consider Arkansas. Over a four-day period in October, the hospital at Camp Pike admitted 8,000 soldiers. Francis Blake, a member of the Army’s special pneumonia unit, described the scene: “Every corridor and there are miles of them with double rows of cots ...with influenza patients...There is only death and destruction.” Yet seven miles away in Little Rock, a headline in the Gazette pretended yawns: “Spanish influenza is plain la grippe—same old fever and chills.”

People knew this was not the same old thing, though. They knew because the numbers were staggering—in San Antonio, 53 percent of the population got sick with influenza. They knew because victims could die within hours of the first symptoms—horrific symptoms, not just aches and cyanosis but also a foamy blood coughed up from the lungs, and bleeding from the nose, ears and even eyes. And people knew because towns and cities ran out of coffins.

People could believe nothing they were being told, so they feared everything, particularly the unknown. How long would it last? How many would it kill? Who would it kill? With the truth buried, morale collapsed. Society itself began to disintegrate.

Time and time again, we see that public officials lying or minimizing imminent threats makes the results worse. Time and time again, they lie or minimize imminent threats.

Good thing Mike Pence is on the job today. It's not like he ever lied and minimized an imminent health threat, causing loss of life that his government could easily have prevented.

Spot the theme

A few articles to read at lunchtime today:

  • Will Peischel, writing for Mother Jones, warns that the wildfires in Australia aren't the new normal. They're something worse. (Hint: fires create their own weather, causing feedback loops no one predicted.)
  • A new analysis finds that ocean temperatures not only hit record highs in 2019, but also that the rate of increase is accelerating.
  • First Nations communities living on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron—the largest freshwater island in the world—warn that human activity is disrupting millennia-old ecosystems in the Great Lakes.

Fortunately, those aren't the only depressing stories in the news today:

Now that I'm thoroughly depressed, I'll continue working on this API over here...

If you see one carrying a box marked "Acme..."

A coyote (or coyotes, but maybe just one) has had enough of humanity in Chicago:

Another coyote attack was reported Wednesday night when a man walked into a hospital with a wound on his buttocks that he says came from a coyote.

The 32-year-old man showed up at Northwestern Memorial Hospital with a scratch on his behind, according to Chicago police.

He told officers that on Wednesday evening a coyote attacked him from behind and bit him in the buttocks while he walked on a sidewalk in the 700 block of North Fairbanks Court, police said.

Earlier that afternoon, a 5-year-old boy was bitten in the head by a coyote on Wednesday afternoon outside a nature museum in Lincoln Park.

This coyote (or coyotes) is not behaving normally. First, they're primarily nocturnal animals. Second, while they have acclimated to humans, they do not typically approach humans. According to local Animal Care and Control officials, however, the increased aggression may come from simple hunger, as food supplies dwindle during the winter.

If you see a coyote, "making loud noises, or using a whistle, is a good way to spook a coyote into leaving. Waving your hands and jumping up and down can also work, according to experts."

About 4,500 coyotes live in Cook County, with about 2,000 of those in Chicago. Longtime readers of The Daily Parker will remember that the cemeteries north and south of my apartment have multiple dens, and also that AC&C officials pulled a coyote out of a drinks cooler in downtown Chicago about 12 years ago.

More on coyotes from the Cook County Forest Preserve District.