The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

It can't happen here

I've been reading a novel written in 1935 that, except for its contemporary cultural references, could have been written in 2015. Or, heaven forfend!, 2020.

I can't recommend Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here enough. Donald Trump isn't exactly Buzz Windrip, but he's too close for comfort. 

The problem, of course, is that authoritarian demagogues have script, and if you've read it, you know the ending. Worse, you know the chapters between here and there. Lewis's wife, Dorothy Thompson, covered Germany as a journalist in the early 1930s. In that decade, Americans worried more than we do today about fascism—even without knowing the truth about Nazism's final solution.

The novel has different pacing and dialogue than modern audiences might prefer. The protagonist also sounds a bit preachy. And don't get me started with the casual sexism of Lewis's worldview. But he was prescient. And he showed how, exactly, it could happen here.

The events of the last three years do too. Let's hope our institutions survive.

Another slice of Occam's Razor

Andrew Sullivan doesn't think we need to dig too deeply into President Trump's dealings to understand why he behaves the way he does:

The lies come and go. But his deeper convictions really are in plain sight.

And they are, at root, the same as those of the strongmen he associates with and most admires. The post-1945 attempt to organize the world around collective security, free trade, open societies, non-zero-sum diplomacy, and multicultural democracies is therefore close to unintelligible to him. Why on earth, in his mind, would a victorious power after a world war be … generous to its defeated foes? When you win, you don’t hold out a hand in enlightened self-interest. You gloat and stomp. In Trump’s zero-sum brain — “we should have kept the oil!” — it makes no sense. It has to be a con. And so today’s international order strikes Trump, and always has, as a massive, historic error on the part of the United States.

He always hated it, and he never understood it. That kind of complex, interdependent world requires virtues he doesn’t have and skills he doesn’t possess. He wants a world he intuitively understands: of individual nations, in which the most powerful are free to bully the others. He wants an end to transnational migration, especially from south to north. It unnerves him. He believes that warfare should be engaged not to defend the collective peace as a last resort but to plunder and occupy and threaten. He sees no moral difference between free and authoritarian societies, just a difference of “strength,” in which free societies, in his mind, are the weaker ones. He sees nations as ethno-states, exercising hard power, rather than liberal societies, governed by international codes of conduct. He believes in diplomacy as the meeting of strongmen in secret, doing deals, in alpha displays of strength — not endless bullshit sessions at multilateral summits. He’s the kind of person who thinks that the mafia boss at the back table is the coolest guy in the room.

All of this has been clear from the start. So while the Mueller probe may continue to uncover massive criminal activity all around Trump, it may never find true collusion with Russia. But the probe is still necessary, because (a) there really is criminal behavior there and (b) it can preserve the West that much longer.

But we simply must take the House back this November, and send Trump packing in 2020. Otherwise the world will become a much worse place very soon.

That's not a moon, that's a--wait, no that's a moon

Astronomer Scott Sheppard has discovered 10 more moons orbiting Jupiter, bringing the gas giant's coterie up to 79:

Sheppard found them with the help of a ground-based telescope in Chile that had recently received an upgrade: a camera made for scanning the night sky for very faint objects. Sheppard was looking for Planet Nine, the planet some astronomers believe lurks somewhere at the edge of our solar system, jostling the orbits of other objects in strange ways. As the telescope gazed in the darkness way beyond Pluto, it ended up catching something much closer: a flurry of glinting, tiny objects near Jupiter, the smallest of which was about half a mile wide.

Sheppard couldn’t say whether these points of light were actually moons, at least not right away. To determine whether something is indeed a moon, astronomers must track the object for about a year to determine that, yes, its motions are governed by the gravitational tug of a planet. Sheppard says he couldn’t get excited about his findings in earnest until he observed the objects again a year later, this past spring, and his suspicions were confirmed.

If you came to this story expecting to find dazzling, close-up images of Jupiter’s newly discovered moons, we have some bad news: The era of discovering massive worlds around the gas planet ended more than 400 years ago, with Galileo. Like this latest batch, many of the moons astronomers have discovered around Jupiter in the past several decades have been smaller than cities. Their minuscule size has prompted some astronomers, including Sheppard and Williams, to wonder whether they should even bother giving them names. Williams says that discoverers of moons don’t have to name them if they don’t want to. Sheppard suggests perhaps it’s time to add another layer to our definition of a moon. “The definition of a moon is just anything that orbits a planet, so maybe once you start getting down to a kilometer or so in size, maybe we should start calling these things dwarf moons,” he says.

Now they just have to name all of them...

A "sad, embarrassing wreck of a man"

That's how lifelong Republican George Will describes his party's leader:

Americans elected a president who — this is a safe surmise — knew that he had more to fear from making his tax returns public than from keeping them secret. The most innocent inference is that for decades he has depended on an American weakness, susceptibility to the tacky charisma of wealth, which would evaporate when his tax returns revealed that he has always lied about his wealth, too. A more ominous explanation might be that his redundantly demonstrated incompetence as a businessman tumbled him into unsavory financial dependencies on Russians. A still more sinister explanation might be that the Russians have something else, something worse, to keep him compliant.

The explanation is in doubt; what needs to be explained — his compliance — is not. Granted, Trump has a weak man’s banal fascination with strong men whose disdain for him is evidently unimaginable to him. And, yes, he only perfunctorily pretends to have priorities beyond personal aggrandizement. But just as astronomers inferred, from anomalies in the orbits of the planet Uranus, the existence of Neptune before actually seeing it, Mueller might infer, and then find, still-hidden sources of the behavior of this sad, embarrassing wreck of a man.

Kathleen Parker says "a cancer lives among us:"

Sure, he’s rude and crude, they’ve said, but he’s going to make America great again.

No, he’s not.

Nor was he ever, notwithstanding a column I wrote just before Election Day, saying that America would survive no matter who won. My optimism was based solely on faith in the U.S. Constitution and the inherent checks and balances prescribed therein. To be wrong would mean that the checks aren’t being applied when imbalances occur.

We are there.

When our chief executive, whose principal job is to defend both the Constitution and the nation against aggressors, stands alongside our chief geopolitical foe and betrays two of our most important institutions in the service of his own ego, he has dimmed the lights in the shining city on a hill and left the world a far darker place.

It’s often said that America is great because America is good. My faith in the institutions and the individuals who conferred upon us a singular role in the history of humankind is yet unshaken. But a cancer lives among us, and the good people of this country must be precise in its excision.

Those are Republicans. Democratic Party members haven't been so kind.

Is there a simpler explanation for Trump's presser?

Writing for New Republic, Conor Lynch speculates that President Trump may not be a Russian asset per se; he might just be a fellow traveler:

To be fair to the critics..., Trump’s behavior was indeed troubling. During the NATO summit, Trump insulted and alienated leaders of the United States’ closest allies, and it became clear early on that he had no intention of toning down his rhetoric. After declaring that Germany was “captive to Russia,” blasting other members as “delinquent,” and threatening to “go it alone” if other countries didn’t raise their spending, the president held a bizarre press conference on Thursday to declare the summit a success and once again refer to himself as a “stable genius.” The NATO summit was a success in at least one sense: As Alex Ward put it in Vox, the big winner of the summit was Vladimir Putin, who “wants to divide NATO.” 

But even after Trump’s scandalous week in Europe, there is still a better explanation for his apparent hostility towards Europe and affection for Putin: Trump and Putin have similar worldviews and political temperaments, and thus see eye to eye on many things. Both are political reactionaries and ultra-nationalists and, though Putin is far more authoritarian, Trump has made it clear that he would rather be a dictator than the leader of a democracy with constitutional restraints on his authority. The American president has a long history of praising authoritarian leaders like Putin and President Xi Jinping of China while disparaging democratically elected leaders as “weak,” so it is not surprising that he would admire the Russian president. 

I mean, Occam's Razor gives this idea some credence. But let's not kid ourselves: the outcomes from Trump's worldview are in themselves very disturbing. He just may want them on his own, without Russian help.

Holy mother of veracity, what a press conference

This is not an innocent man:

I mean, credit to Putin for keeping a straight face. But I can see why officials in both major U.S. parties have called this treasonous or nearly so.

Let's see what the Republicans in Congress do now.

Update: Around 30:15, Putin offers to have Russian law enforcement interrogate the Russian GRU agents who were named in the Justice Department indictment from Friday. Where does one even start? What does he have on Trump, seriously?

Too many things in my inbox

I probably won't have time to read all of these things over lunch:

Share that last one with your non-technical friends. It's pretty clever.

Hint Fiction

Since hearing about it on NPR almost 8 years ago, I have loved the book Hint Fiction. It's collection of short stories, none more than 25 words long.

The other day I had an inspiration and wrote one of my own:

Acquired, 1989

She left the office, reading the paper again.

"This isn't possible," she thought. "Brad's not gay."

These may pop up here from time to time.

Cool new feature in Weather Now

I've finally gotten around to extending the historical weather feature in Weather Now. Now, you can get any archival report that the system has, back to 2013. (I have many more archival reports from before then but they're not online.)

For example, here's the last time I arrived in London, or the time I took an amazing photo in Hermosa Beach, Calif.

I don't know why it took me so long to code this feature. It only took about 4 hours, including testing. And it also led me to fix a bug that has been in the feature since 2008.

Trial runs for fascism

Irish Times columnist Fintan O'Toole points to the Trump Administration putting babies in cages as one example of how they're building up to fascism:

Fascism doesn’t arise suddenly in an existing democracy. It is not easy to get people to give up their ideas of freedom and civility. You have to do trial runs that, if they are done well, serve two purposes. They get people used to something they may initially recoil from; and they allow you to refine and calibrate. This is what is happening now and we would be fools not to see it.

One of the basic tools of fascism is the rigging of elections – we’ve seen that trialled in the election of Trump, in the Brexit referendum and (less successfully) in the French presidential elections. Another is the generation of tribal identities, the division of society into mutually exclusive polarities. Fascism does not need a majority – it typically comes to power with about 40 per cent support and then uses control and intimidation to consolidate that power. So it doesn’t matter if most people hate you, as long as your 40 per cent is fanatically committed. That’s been tested out too. And fascism of course needs a propaganda machine so effective that it creates for its followers a universe of “alternative facts” impervious to unwanted realities. Again, the testing for this is very far advanced.

To see, as most commentary has done, the deliberate traumatisation of migrant children as a “mistake” by Trump is culpable naivety. It is a trial run – and the trial has been a huge success. Trump’s claim last week that immigrants “infest” the US is a test-marketing of whether his fans are ready for the next step-up in language, which is of course “vermin”. And the generation of images of toddlers being dragged from their parents is a test of whether those words can be turned into sounds and pictures. It was always an experiment – it ended (but only in part) because the results were in.

The best we can hope for at this point is to take back the House of Representatives in 115 days. But we now know the Russian Government will try to disrupt or discredit those elections—so we need to prepare for that as well.

Interesting times.