The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Fun holiday weekend in Chicago

The top story from this past weekend is that Governor Bruce Rauner vetoed the state budget the legislature proposed, and within an hour the Illinois Senate had voted to override. We haven't had a state budget in more than two years. The governor is an ideological Republican in a majority-Democratic state. Crain's Greg Hinz explains:

Statements from two of the main antagonists, Rauner and Senate President John Cullerton, underlined just how wide the political and philosophical gap remains.

"The package of legislation fails to address Illinois' fiscal and economic crisis—and in fact, makes it worse in the long run," Rauner said in vetoing the main appropriations bill, a second measure dealing with revenue, and a budget-implementation bill. "It does not balance the budget. It does not make nearly sufficient spending reductions, does not pay down our debt, and holds schools hostage to force a Chicago bailout."

"This is a step in the right direction," countered Cullerton. "There is obviously more work to do. There always is. . . .(But) with today's votes, the Senate approved a balanced budget that funds our schools, supports our universities, honors our commitments to social service agencies, keeps road crews employed and even ensures Lottery winners get paid."

As those statements suggest, a big winner in the apparent budget outcome is Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Assuming a House override, he won final approval of a plan to refinance Chicago pension funds covering laborers and white collar workers; the OK to raise the city's 911 tax another $1.10 to $5 per phone line per month to pay those costs; and roughly $300 million more next year for cash-strapped Chicago Public Schools. Chicago and other municipalities also will be protected from losing any money in income tax receipts, even though the state will cut back on the share that goes to them, the Chicago Transit Authority and Metra their normal tax subsidy

A big loser, at least so far, is much of the state's business community, which didn't get the cost-cutting steps it wanted, especially a reduction in workers compensation payments. But other business groups, notably the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club, argued it was far more important to restore financial stability to reeling state government.

Well, duh. Almost everyone in the state who isn't a Republican ideologue wants this budget to pass. It's a good compromise and actually gives the Republicans a lot of what they want. But that's the thing: Republicans in general, and Bruce Rauner in specific, refuse to compromise. 

Meanwhile, in Chicago, 100 people were shot over the weekend, which had less to do with the budget but something to do with Republican religion about guns. Maybe someday we'll decide that the plain meaning of the Second Amendment really does allow states and cities to crack down on handguns and military-style rifles. Maybe.

How the Windy City got its name

By boasting, it turns out. And writing in the New York Times, Mayor Rahm Emanuel carries on the tradition of thumbing New York's eye:

On Thursday, in the wake of a subway derailment and an epidemic of train delays, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York declared a state of emergency for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the busiest mass transit system in America. That same day, the nation’s third-busiest system — the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority — handed out coupons for free coffee to riders stuck in the second year of slowdowns caused by repairs to prevent chronic fires.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, a recent survey found that 85 percent of passengers are satisfied with service on our transit system, the nation’s second most used.

The L, Chicago’s system, turned 125 this year. The elevated railway began as four wooden cars powered by coal and steam. Last year, more than 238 million rides were taken on the system, which, unlike the ones in New York and Washington, has not been troubled by systemic failures, breakdowns and delays. Even during a 28-day stretch of arctic temperatures in 2014, the L was never interrupted.

I mean, hey, it's the one bit of infrastructure Chicago has going for it. Of course, New York City's roads aren't great either.

How did Canada avoid the demagogues?

On this Canada Day, let's pause and reflect that populists of the Trumpian variety just don't get traction in Canada. Why? Because the Canadian identity is one of tolerance, according to New York Times columnist Amanda Taub:

n other Western countries, right-wing populism has emerged as a politics of us-versus-them. It pits members of white majorities against immigrants and minorities, driven by a sense that cohesive national identities are under threat. In France, for instance, it is common to hear that immigration dilutes French identity, and that allowing minority groups to keep their own cultures erodes vital elements of Frenchness.

Identity works differently in Canada. Both whites and nonwhites see Canadian identity as something that not only can accommodate outsiders, but is enhanced by the inclusion of many different kinds of people.

Canada is a mosaic rather than a melting pot, several people told me — a place that celebrates different backgrounds rather than demanding assimilation.

“Lots of immigrants, they come with their culture, and Canadians like that,” said Ilya Bolotine, an information technology worker from Russia, whom I met at a large park on the Lake Ontario waterfront. “They like variety. They like diversity.”

Taub says the trend started in 1971 on the Liberal side and continued through the Conservative victories in 2011 and 2015. It makes a thoughtful person wonder about spending time north of the border.

Happy 150th, OK?

The freest and most polite English-speaking nation on earth turned 150 today, and, being Canadian, the country isn't sure what that means:

The year 2017 marks 150 years since Confederation. Or rather, what we've come to call Confederation.

Canada is actually a federation, but the term Confederation caught on in the in the 19th century and it stuck — we've named squares and bridges after it, we refer to the "Fathers of Confederation" (and the Mothers too!), and the word has come to represent the country and the events that created it.

"It" being "one Dominion under the crown," a.k.a. the Dominion of Canada, as per the British North America Act of 1867 that unified the colonies (Province of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick).

In 1982, Canada "patriated" the constitution, a political process that led to Canadian sovereignty, allowing Canadians to amend our Constitution without requiring Britain's approval. This, the Constitution Act of 1982, was a landmark event and enacted our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Yes, this declaration of independence took place in the '80s, and it was in 1982 that "Dominion Day," aka July 1, was renamed in Parliament to "Canada Day."

Oh Canada, you millennial, you.

In any event, and in honor of the day: O Canada, I stand on guard for thee.

Kamloops, B.C., 18 July 1991. Canon T-90, Kodachrome 64; exposure unrecorded.

Where most of us live

McMansionHell.com 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.