The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Where most of us live suffered a really bad week that had an awesomely good outcome thanks to the EFF. It's worth reading about. But last week, she published a great essay on the architectural styles (or lacks thereof) of the modern wealthy and how we should look at middle-class architecture as well (emphasis hers):

Architecture as a field has always been captivated by the houses of the elite - those who can hire architects, build large and high quality homes, and set trends for the next generations. While it is always enjoyable to look at street after street of high-profile houses and marvel at their fine execution and intricate architectural details, we must keep in mind that these houses are not where most of us live. 

Architectural history and preservation have always preferred buildings left virtually untouched and in pristine condition. For most of us, our houses are not museums - they are places we live - places that grow as we grow. We build additions, decks, and other secondary structures; we enclose our porches in order to add a dining room; we redecorate to our tastes and the styles of today.

McMansions are so disappointing to us because they are the homes of the upper and upper-middle classes who used to build houses that were interesting, that set the stylistic trends later codified by architectural history. While they are now included in guides like A Field Guide to American Houses, the usual objectivity is put aside, replaced with an air of disdain, as if to say “this is the best you could come up with?”

As to the matter this week, I wonder which genius at Zillow decided to sue a young architect for making fun of the houses on Zillow without actually harming the company itself? I mean, doesn't Zillow itself exist thanks to freely-available data?

Google's Project Zero for laypeople

Via Bruce Schneier (again), Fortune takes a look at Google's security project:

Google officially formed Project Zero in 2014, but the group’s origins stretch back another five years. It often takes an emergency to drive most companies to take security seriously. For Google, that moment was Operation Aurora.

In 2009, a cyberespionage group associated with the Chinese government hacked Google and a number of other tech titans, breaching their servers, stealing their intellectual property, and attempting to spy on their users. The pillaging outraged Google’s top executives—enough so that the company eventually exited China, the world’s biggest market, over the affair.

The event particularly bothered Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Computer-forensics firms and investigators determined that the company had been hacked not through any fault of Google’s own software, but via an unpatched flaw in Microsoft Internet Explorer 6. Why, he wondered, should Google’s security depend on other companies’ products?

Says Schneier,

I have mixed feeling about it. The project does great work, and the Internet has benefited enormously from these efforts. But as long as it is embedded inside Google, it has to deal with accusations that it targets Google competitors.

On the other hand, as Schneier's commenters point out (and as he has suggested in the past), better Google exposing the bugs than the NSA losing control of them.

The women who broke Nazi codes

Via Bruce SchneierTech Republic tells the story of the women who worked at Bletchley Park during World War II:

Because [Alan] Turing's individual achievements were so momentous, it's sometimes forgotten that more than 10,000 other people worked at the Government Code and Cypher School, of whom more than two-thirds were female. These servicewomen played a pivotal role in an operation that decrypted millions of German messages and which is credited with significantly shortening the war.

The code-breaking operation was spread over teams working in various huts around the manor house at Bletchley, with the bombe machines situated in outstations nearby. There were about 8,000 people involved in the code-breaking—what was known as the factory—and 4,000 support staff. Each team generally knew no more than was necessary about what the other groups were doing.

Teams worked in different huts on breaking the Enigma codes, focusing on the army and air-force ciphers in one and the tougher naval encryption in another. Unscrambled messages were then sent on to linguists for translation and officials who would decide how the information should be used and, more importantly, whether it could be used without revealing that the Allies had cracked Enigma.

This history is hinted at, however minimally, by Kiera Knightly's character in The Imitation Game.

Lunchtime link list

Among the browser windows I have open are these:

Now, back to coding. In Ruby, yet.

Our most impressive weapon system is obsolete

Navies and naval strategy fascinate me. For 4,950 of the last 5,000 years, if you wanted to project military power fast and hard, you sent your navy. But even during the great naval battles of World War II, engineers had developed missiles and airplanes that could destroy just about any naval vessel anywhere, except (crucially) submarines.

Today, the U.S. Carrier Strike Group, with its 7,000 sailors and aviators supporting the largest military ships ever built, can put 90 deadly aircraft within striking range of any point on earth within 48 hours. If you see an aircraft carrier in international waters off your coast—and you will see it, because it's huge—you might adjust your foreign policy.

But note that aircraft carriers aren't the deadliest or most effective weapons systems we have. The deadliest are our nuclear ballistic missile submarines, each of the 14 containing up to 200 nuclear bombs that they can deliver to any point on earth. And to date, no other country has developed effective means of detecting and eliminating them. That's why they're our ultimate deterrent: strike the U.S. with nuclear weapons, and our submarines will end you.

Aircraft carriers, as previously noted, are quite obvious to everyone. And their attack range is less than the strike range of Chinese missiles. Which makes one wonder, what are they for anymore? Bloomberg has more:

For several years, the Pentagon has “admired the problem” of how long-range enemy missiles affect its carrier fleet but has avoided tough decisions about how to increase the fleets’ aircraft range and provide for more unmanned aircraft, said Paul Scharre, senior fellow and director of the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a nonprofit think tank. Meanwhile, the Navy’s strike range from its carrier wings has actually dipped by 50 percent, below 500 miles, according to Jerry Hendrix, another CNAS analyst.

Last year, the they recommended scrapping the Ford-class carriers after the Kennedy’s completion and boosting the Navy’s offensive range with a greater reliance on unmanned aircraft, including a long-range attack platform. The Navy’s submarine fleet would also grow to 74, from 58, under the author’s recommendations, which reflected a 2 percent annual increase in Pentagon funding.

Despite these strategic shortcomings, there’s still a political reality to wrestle with: The Navy’s largest ships remain politically untouchable. The carrier retains a mystique throughout the military and Congress; it’s an 1,100-foot giant that’s become a uniquely American symbol of dominating military power.

So, there it is. The incentives are wrong, and they're for fighting the last war. It's like when Germany built the Bismarck or when France built the Maginot Line.

But yeah, let's cut Medicaid and build another carrier!

Cost disease

I've meant to write about this for a while. Economist William Baumol died on May 4th. Among other things he worked on, what interested me most in the Economist's obituary of him was his work on cost disease. From the Economist:

Mr Baumol will be remembered best for his cost disease. Its origin was unlikely: a commission to help those promoting the arts understand the financial struggles that cultural organisations faced. A report co-written with William Bowen closed with a simple but striking observation. Workers in the arts compete in the same national labour market as those in factories. As rising productivity in manufacturing lifts the wages of factory workers, arts organisations must pay their staff more to keep them from quitting to make widgets. But rising wages in the arts are not matched, as in manufacturing, by corresponding productivity growth: performing a piece by Schubert took the same time and the same number of musicians in the 20th century as it did in the 19th. Thus rising costs and stagnant productivity create increasing pressure over time to raise ticket prices, or take in more donations, or produce less art. The analysis bore relevance outside the arts, he quickly realised. Technological progress in some industries implies that in services with relatively low rates of productivity growth—like health care, education and government—swelling costs will outstrip growth in productivity. Costlier public services are a necessary side-effect of long-run growth.

Trouble results, Mr Baumol pointed out, when rising spending creates political pressure for cutbacks, leading to needless deterioration in the quality of services. Whereas cost-saving efficiencies are both possible and welcome, budget cuts premised on the notion that the share of spending on, say, education should remain flat hinder rather than help the economy. Indeed, if stagnant services complement an economy’s high-flying sectors (plying tech firms with educated workers, for example), then rising employment in stagnant areas raises rather than lowers overall productivity growth.

I'm still digesting the theory, and trying to come up with a way to make it meaningful in the arts organizations I support.

It's not a different strategy; it's a different outcome

Josh Marshall points to Dana Bash's remarks yesterday as an example of how many journalists miss (or misrepresent) the point in the health-care debate:

Current Republican ideology...posits that it is simply not the responsibility or place of government, certainly not the federal government, to make sure everyone has health care coverage. You can agree or disagree with that premise. But it’s not hard to understand and it is not indefensible. Very few of us think the government should step in if someone doesn’t have enough money to buy a car. We don’t think there’s a right to a home or apartment where every child has their own bedroom. On most things we accept that things are not equal, even if we believe that extremes of inequality are bad for society and even immoral.

But many of us think that healthcare is fundamentally different. It’s not just another market product that we accept people can or can’t get or can or can’t get at certain levels of quality because of wealth, chance, exertion and all the other factors that go into wealth and income. This is both a moral and ideological premise.

Pretending that both parties just have very different approaches to solving a commonly agreed upon problem is really just a lie. It’s not true. One side is looking for ways to increase the number of people who have real health insurance and thus reasonable access to health care and the other is trying to get the government out of the health care provision business with the inevitable result that the opposite will be the case.

At least the Times editorial board is calling the GOP plan a hoax.

Still too damn hot in Phoenix

Following up on last week, Ask the Pilot weighs in on exactly why the heat in Phoenix is grounding airplanes:

Extreme heat affects planes in a few different ways. First, there are aerodynamic repercussions. Hotter air is less dense than cooler air, so a wing produces less lift. This is compounded by reduced engine output. Jet engines don’t like low-density air either, and don’t perform as well in hot weather. Together, this means higher takeoff and landing speeds — which, in turn, increases the amount of required runway. Rates of climb are also impeded. Performance parameters require that a plane be able to climb away safely following an engine failure, and this might not be possible. Engines also are subject to internal temperature limits — exhaust gas temps, etc. — beyond which operation isn’t permitted. When it’s really hot outside these limits are easier to exceed.

Then you’ve got the simpler, more tangible effects: overheating electronics, increased brake temperatures, cabin cooling issues, and so on. Airplanes have a lot of internal machinery, and much of it runs hot to begin with. Throw in triple-digit temperatures, and things begin to break down. And let’s not forget the effects on ground support equipment and, of course, the people working outside.

It's currently a balmy 39°C in Phoenix. That's almost tolerable, with enough air conditioning.