The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Ten million unemployed

More than 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment insurance last week (including 178,000 in Illinois), following the 3.3 million who filed the week before. This graphic from The Washington Post puts these numbers in perspective:

Hotel occupancy has crashed as well, down 67% year-over-year, with industry analysts predicting the worst year on record.

In other pandemic news:

Finally, unrelated to the coronavirus but definitely related to our natural environment, the Lake Michigan/Huron system recorded its third straight month of record levels in March. The lake is a full meter above the long-term average and 30 cm above last year's alarming levels.

A to Z postponed for coronavirus

I had plans to do the Blogging A-to-Z challenge this year as I've done the last two, but reality intervened. In theory I have more time to write than last year. In fact I didn't have the energy required to plan and start drafting entries mid-March, for obvious reasons.

Things have stabilized since my office closed on the 17th, and I've gotten back into the swing of working from home every day. But I feel like a full 26-post series this month would not rise to my own standards of quality for permanent, information-based writing.

Check out my 2018 A-to-Z posts on C# programming and my 2019 posts on music theory. I'll do it again in 2021—or, possibly, in May.

Back when we sabotaged an empire

People who don't study history tend not to understand why our foreign allies and adversaries behave the ways they do. Case in point: the Soviet Union, of which the largest part lives on as the Russian Federation, ended in part because we forced them to spend down their economy just to keep up with us. They might still hate us a little for that.

One man who helped this effort, Gus Weiss, hit on the idea of sabotaging the technology that Soviet spies bought or stole from American and other Western companies. Via Bruce Schneier, Wired has a long-form description of Weiss and his plan:

This plan to feed defective technology, which Weiss says carried the operation designation “Kudo,” existed as part of a larger government mobilization in response to the Farewell intelligence across the national security community. “It was multilayered operation,” Galahad told me. According to Galahad, Weiss didn’t hold any formal leadership role in this effort; instead, “Gus did his work through his own contacts. He was a White House guy. He could get people to pay attention to his ideas. He had friends in the computer business. He had Casey’s ear.”

Galahad told me that Weiss zeroed in on the Soviet industrial sector; he wanted to gut punch the Soviet economy. Galahad recalled that Weiss was friendly with the analysts in the CIA’s Office of Soviet Research. “Let’s say the Italians were building a tractor factory for the Russians in the Ukraine—the guys in OSR would have had access to those blueprints. Gus shared his ideas and recommendations based on that intelligence to his friends at the DoD.”

Meanwhile, the government worked with private sector software companies to create doctored industrial products. They were then made available to the patent clerks and engineers in American technology and arms companies who’d been recruited by the KGB.

High up on the Soviet tech shopping list was software to regulate the pressure gauges and valves for the critical Siberian gas pipeline. According to Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, the Soviets sought the software on the open market. American export controls prohibited its sale from the US. However, a small industrial software company located in Calgary called Cov-Can produced what the Soviets wanted. As Weiner writes, “The Soviets sent a Line X officer to steal the software. The CIA and the Canadians conspired to let them have it.”

The faulty software “weaved” its way through Soviet quality control. The pipeline software ran swimmingly for months, but then pressure in the pipeline gradually mounted. And one day—the date remains unclear, though most put it in June 1982—the software went haywire, the pressure soaring out of control. The pipeline ruptured, igniting a blast in the wilds of Siberia so massive that, according to Thomas C. Reed’s At the Abyss, “at the White House, we received warning from our infrared satellites of some bizarre event out in the middle of Soviet nowhere. NORAD feared a missile liftoff from a place where no rockets were known to be based. Or perhaps it was the detonation of a nuclear device. The Air Force chief of intelligence rated it at three kilotons.”

I wonder if Presidents Putin and Trump discussed this history during any of their recent unrecorded conversations?

Illinois on lock-down, day 3

The governor ordered everyone to stay at home only a few days ago, and yet it seems like much longer. I started working from home three weeks ago, initially because my entire team were traveling, and then for safety. My company turned off all our badges yesterday so I couldn't go back even if I wanted to. And I find myself planning meals a week out because I find it nearly impossible to cook small amounts of food. (Sample entries: Monday dinner, shrimp in garlic, butter, and wine sauce with wild rice; Tuesday lunch, leftover grilled chicken with wild rice. The shrimp were delicious, by the way.)

It doesn't help that the President and Senate Republicans are trying to turn this whole thing into a corporate giveaway. Some other lowlights:

But in one bit of good news, China announced an end to the two-month lockdown of Hubei province a few hours from now. Could we also start getting back to normal mid-May?

And finally, enjoy some scampi:

Extraordinary measures in the UK

I'm trying to get my mind around a Conservative government announcing this a few minutes ago:

The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has announced the government will pay the wages of British workers to keep them in jobs as the coronavirus outbreak escalates.

In an unprecedented step, Sunak said the state would pay grants covering up to 80% of the salary of workers kept on by companies, up to a total of £2,500 per month, just above the median income.

“We are starting a great national effort to protect jobs,” he said. “It’s on all of us.”

Sunak said there would be no limit on the funding available to pay people’s wages.

The government is also deferring the next quarter of VAT payments, which is the equivalent of injecting another £30bn into the economy and is designed to help companies stay afloat.

(Another thing that I just learned: Sterling has dropped 12% against the dollar in the past week, hitting £1 = $1.1641 a few minutes ago.)

Closer to home:

And finally, Mother Jones asks "How do you know if you're living through the death of an empire?"

Shaka, when the walls fell

I have tons of experience working from home, but historically I've balanced that by going out in the evenings. The pandemic has obviously cut that practice down to zero. Moreover, the village of Oak Park will start shelter-in-place measures tomorrow, so I expect Chicago to do the same in the next couple of days. The Oak Park order seems reasonable: stay home except for essentials like food and medicine, stay two meters away from other people, it's OK to walk your dog, and so on. Since I'm already doing all of those things, a Chicago order would only affect my friends who, for example, own book shops and can't work remotely for other reasons.

In other pandemic news:

  • As of yesterday a record 41,000 Illinois residents filed for unemployment benefits in a 48-hour period.
  • Two luxury hotels have closed in Chicago with others expected to follow.
  • Bruce Schneier calls attention to a work-from-home security awareness kit and worries about how the pandemic will increase overall infosec vulnerability because people don't actually know how to secure their home offices.
  • Josh Marshall worries we're flying totally blind, because we haven't collected vital data about the pandemic's spread.
  • The pub where citizens took refuge in the Zombie apocalypse comedy Sean of the Dead has shut because of the pandemic. “We stayed open during a zombie plague, ISIS attacks on London, an alien invasion and the news that Genesis were reforming, but we’ve had to take expert advice and close our doors this time”, said landlord Simon Williams.
  • Republican US Senator Richard Burr briefed "a small group of well-connected constituents" about COVID-19 three weeks ago, according to a secret recording obtained by NPR. Another Republican asshat, US Representative Don Young (R-AK), joked about the "beer virus" and suggested people continue going out as normal. (Even if I hadn't specified the party affiliations of these tools, you'd know which party, wouldn't you?)
  • Former US Senator Al Franken calls Trump's response "the last straw."
  • Peter Nicholas writes in the Atlantic that "this is how Donald Trump will be remembered."

Also, today is the 92nd anniversary of the debut of "Amos 'n' Andy" on Chicago's WMAQ radio.

The hits keep coming

Last night I had the wonderful experience of performing Bach's Johannes-Passion with the Apollo Chorus of Chicago and the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra. I say "performing" because, recognizing that we had already cancelled our performance on Saturday and would probably cancel Sunday's as well, this was our one shot. Three months of preparation, hours of study and practicing German diction, gone. And I'm on my second half-personal-day at home dealing with the cleanup, which has included a few hundred emails, changes to the chorus website and ticketing system, consulting with the rest of the Board...and grocery shopping.

We cancelled Sunday's concert in part because Illinois Governor JB Pritzker ordered all events with 1,000 or more attendees cancelled, and recommended events with more than 250 people also be cancelled. Since we have 100 singers and 75 instrumentalists on stage...well, there you go. No audience allowed. 

This makes me no different than other performers and athletes all over the world right now. In Chicago alone, the list of local cancellations has dozens of items. Just now, the Chicago Teachers Union has demanded that Chicago Public Schools close as well. For parents and children who live with food insecurity, that could hurt a lot.

And yet, the thing that enraged me, and has generated near-universal opprobrium, was the President's speech on Wednesday night. Some reactions:

  • "Trump’s 10-minute Oval Office address Wednesday night reflected not only his handling of the coronavirus crisis but, in some ways, much of his presidency. It was riddled with errors, nationalist and xenophobic in tone, limited in its empathy, and boastful of both his own decisions and the supremacy of the nation he leads."—Washington Post
  • "This latest Trump speech was uniquely incompetent and inappropriate.... In my view it had three problems: how it was conceived; how it was written; and how it was delivered."—Former presidential speechwriter James Fallows
  • "At every turn, President Trump’s policy regarding coronavirus has unfolded as if guided by one rule: How can I make this crisis worse?"—David Frum
  • "Rather than focusing on what we need to do here at home, the president focused on trying to ward off the evil that he insisted was coming from abroad."—Chicago Council on Global Affairs president Ivo Daalder
  • "Donald Trump is panicky and clueless"—Kevin Drum
  • "Trump is singularly incapable of addressing this credibly or effectively, with anything like the right mix of realism and hope the crisis demands."—Andrew Sullivan

We live in really weird times. If only we had a leader to reassure us.

Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt

What an exciting 24 hours.

President Trump made a statement from the Oval Office last night about the COVID-19 pandemic that completely failed to reassure anyone, in part because it contained numerous errors and misstatements. By announcing a ban on travel from the Schengen area of 26 European countries that applies to non-US residents, he enraged our European allies while doing nothing to stop the spread of the virus for the simple reason that the virus has already spread to the US. Not to mention, having a US passport doesn't magically confer immunity on people.

But let's not question the virologist-in-chief at this moment, who has so far refused to heed his experts' advice to issue an emergency declaration until Jared Kushner signs off on it. And wouldn't you guess? Republicans in the Senate have balked at an emergency spending bill because it has the potential to demonstrate that government can help in a crisis, which is why they blocked prevention measures earlier.

A few minutes after trading started today, the New York Stock Exchange hit the brakes to hold the plunge in equities values to 8% for 15 minutes while traders pissed themselves. Trading seems to have stabilized as it resumed, but the markets have now fallen about 25% from their February records.

The National Basketball Association has suspended its season and the National College Athletic Association played the first few games of March Madness without audiences.

In Chicago, PepsiCo became the first company to close its headquarters building, and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange has halted in-person trading entirely. Following California's ban on assemblies of more than 250 persons, Illinois is considering a similar measure. (Scotland has banned groups of 500, and Ireland has cancelled St Patrick's Day events.) And local colleges have moved their spring classes online.

Finally, as a member of the Apollo Chorus of Chicago Board of Directors and as the co-chair of our annual benefit, I am in the position of having to make some of these decisions myself. In another post I'll talk about that. For now, I can say we've sent a few hundred emails around the organization in the past 24 hours because we have concerts scheduled for this weekend and a dress rehearsal scheduled for tonight.

And, of course, I'm working from home again, and I think I should vote today instead of Tuesday.

Updates as conditions warrant.

Updates

I spent an hour trying (unsuccessfully) to track down a monitor to replace the one that sparked, popped, and went black on me this morning. That's going to set me back $150 for a replacement, which isn't so bad, considering.

Less personally, the following also happened in the last 24 hours:

I don't have a virus, by the way. I'm just working from home because the rest of my team are also out of the office.

Great security, guys

Via Schneier, it seems that our security services have not done a great job at, you know, security:

[J]ust how bad is the CIA’s security that it wasn’t able to keep [accused leaker and former CIA sysadmin Joshua] Schulte out, even accounting for the fact that he is a hacking and computer specialist? And the answer is: absolutely terrible.

The password for the Confluence virtual machine that held all the hacking tools that were stolen and leaked? That’ll be 123ABCdef. And the root login for the main DevLAN server? mysweetsummer.

It actually gets worse than that. Those passwords were shared by the entire team and posted on the group’s intranet. IRC chats published during the trial even revealed team members talking about how terrible their infosec practices were, and joked that CIA internal security would go nuts if they knew. Their justification? The intranet was restricted to members of the Operational Support Branch (OSB): the elite programming unit that makes the CIA’s hacking tools.

Oh dear. We used to have the best tools and people in the world. Now it just looks like we have a bunch of tools.