The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Two thoughts about the world

First, I believe this might be the greatest gaffe* of the 21st century:

Second, for everyone whinging on about paying $5 per gallon of gas, why not take this opportunity to finally switch to the metric system? Then you'd only be paying $1.29 per liter** of gas!

* And I do mean "gaffe" in the sense that it's an absolutely true statement made absolutely unintentionally.

** Of course, they're used to this way of pricing petrol in London, where they're today whinging on about 159p per liter ($8 per gallon).

Spring, Summer, Spring, Summer, who knows

This week's temperatures tell a story of incoherence and frustration: Monday, 26°C; Tuesday, 16°C; yesterday, 14°C; today (so far), 27°C. And this is after a record high of 33°C just a week ago—and a low just above 10°C Tuesday morning.

So while I'm wearing out the tracks on my window sashes, I'll have these items to read while my house either cools down or warms up:

And finally, Ian Bogost feels elated that cryptocurrencies have crashed, particularly because he doesn't own any.

What did we say about crypto?

Don't. Just don't. Tulips look like a better investment than cryptocurrency.

First, the Justice Department has launched a prosecution against an unnamed defendant for allegedly laundering $10 million in Bitcoin:

U.S. authorities filed charges in March after allegedly discovering that a sanctioned country had set up a PayPal-type payment platform system with the defendants’ help, according to Friday’s ruling. It said investigators were able to use sophisticated blockchain analysis tools to trace that person’s actions, since despite cryptocurrencies’ anonymizing features, all transactions to individual accounts are recorded in public ledgers that can be amassed into large data sets.

The $10 million in bitcoin payments originated from the United States and were transmitted for customers of the payment platform, according to a U.S. law enforcement affidavit cited by the ruling. The platform advertised its services as designed to evade American sanctions, and the defendant “proudly stated” it could do so using bitcoins while knowing the country was blacklisted, the ruling said.

The US Magistrate Judge overseeing the case reminded the defendant that despite the mythology surrounding them, cryptocurrencies are traceable and are considered cash for the purposes of international sanctions. They are, in other words, not the perfect vectors for bribing foreign dictators that their proponents promote.

Economist Paul Krugman makes (as you'd suspect) the economic argument against cryptocurrencies (sub.req.), if the legal and moral arguments didn't persuade you:

By now, we’ve all heard of them, but what exactly are cryptocurrencies? Many people — including, I fear, many people who have invested in them — probably still don’t fully understand them. Saying that they’re digital assets doesn’t really get at it. My bank account, which I mainly reach online, is also a digital asset, for all practical purposes.

In any case, as we look forward, the value of cryptocurrencies will have to rest on their underlying economic uses, which are …

Well, that’s just the thing. I’ve heard many discussions in which crypto supporters have been asked exactly what economic role crypto can play that isn’t more easily and cheaply achieved through other means — debit cards, Venmo, etc. Other than illegal transactions, in which crypto may sometimes offer anonymity, I have yet to hear a coherent answer.

As it is, cryptocurrencies play almost no role in economic transactions other than speculation in crypto markets themselves. And if your answer is “give it time,” you should bear in mind that Bitcoin has been around since 2009, which makes it ancient by tech standards; Apple introduced the iPad in 2010. If crypto was going to replace conventional money as a medium of exchange — a means of payment — surely we should have seen some signs of that happening by now. Just try paying for your groceries or other everyday goods using Bitcoin. It’s nearly impossible.

Those who question crypto’s purpose are constantly confronted with the argument that the sheer scale of the industry — at their peak, crypto assets were worth almost $3 trillion — and the amount of money true believers have made along the way proves the skeptics wrong. Can we, the public, really be that foolish and gullible?

Well, maybe the crypto skeptics are wrong. But on the question of folly and gullibility, the answer is yes, we can.

As Julia Ioffe pointed out yesterday in reference to ordinary Russians believing the Kremlin's propaganda, in a country where 30% of the population believe in "replacement theory," our folly and gullibility have no limit.

The collapse of crypto

I want to call attention to an article from October by Ben Mackenzie and Jacob Silverman that seems prescient today:

Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Gary Gensler has compared [the cryptocurrency industry] to betting in unlicensed, unregistered casinos. “We’ve got a lot of casinos here in the Wild West,” Gensler said in a chat last month with the Washington Post. “And the poker chip is these stablecoins.” In this casino, the chips themselves might be just as risky as sitting down at the blackjack table.

A stablecoin is a digital currency whose value is directly linked to another asset, kind of like the dollar under the gold standard. The value of a stablecoin is supposed to remain constant. Such cryptocurrencies are useful because converting fiat money into and out of a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin can be slow and cumbersome; if you load up on stablecoins, you’re dealing in the coin of the realm and can make your transactions quickly. The most popular stablecoin by a country mile is Tether. According to a recent study, 70 percent of Bitcoin trading is done in Tethers. On any given day, Tether is by far the most-traded coin, its volume often double that of Bitcoin. If you want to gamble at the crypto casino, you need Tethers.

I was never into betting on crypto for the same reason I was never into online poker: There’s no human interaction involved, and drinking at my desk while watching numbers flicker by on a screen is not my thing. I’m also not eager to gamble on things where I don’t know the risks involved and when I may be playing by different rules than others. For all of its talk about ensuring trust via strong code and decentralized authorities, the crypto industry remains, like many pockets of its mainstream finance counterpart, profoundly concentrated and often untrustworthy.

For those who look past all this and end up on the losing end if this $2 trillion bubble pops, it might be catastrophic, especially as crypto exchanges increasingly resemble unlicensed banks, with some now encouraging users to directly deposit their paychecks into crypto. For the average investor/gambler (is there a difference anymore?), one would be best advised to heed a popular saying in Vegas: Look around the poker table; if you can’t spot the sucker, you’re it.

Forward to this past week, and the tulips South Sea Company Ponzi scheme crypto market seems like the casino is closing.

Student debt relief won't go to the rich

But instead I'm reading this note (sub.req.) by Paul Krugman, pointing out that college degrees no longer have anything to do with wealth or income:

[M]uch of the backlash to proposals for student debt relief is based on a false premise: the belief that Americans who have gone to college are, in general, members of the economic elite.

The falsity of this proposition is obvious for those who were exploited by predatory for-profit institutions that encouraged them to go into debt to get more or less worthless credentials. The same applies to those who took on educational debt but never managed to get a degree — not a small group. In fact, around 40 percent of student loan borrowers never finish their education.

What is widely understood is that America has become a far more unequal society over the past 40 years or so. The nature of rising inequality, however, isn’t as broadly known. I keep encountering seemingly well-informed people who believe that we’re mainly looking at a widening gap between the college-educated and everyone else.

Americans at the 95th percentile don’t consider themselves rich, because they aren’t, surely as compared with C.E.O.s, hedge funders and so on. Nonetheless, they have seen substantial gains. On the other hand, the typical college graduate — who is, remember, someone who made it through and received an accredited degree — hasn’t.

So here’s how I see it: Much of the student debt weighing down millions of Americans can be attributed to false promises.

Some of these promises were scams pure and simple; think Trump University. Even those who weren’t outright cheated, however, were pulled in by elite messaging assuring them that a college degree was a ticket to financial success. Too many didn’t realize that their life circumstances might make it impossible to finish their education — it’s hard for comfortable, upper-middle-class Americans to realize how difficult staying in school can be for young people from poorer families with unstable incomes. Many of those who did manage to finish found that the financial rewards were far smaller than they expected.

And all too many of those who fell victim to these false promises ended up saddled with large debts.

Canceling large swaths of educational debt will do more to help the bottom 95% than most of the legislation proposed this session. The rich don't need it; in fact, many wealthy people have no college debt at all. They're the ones who hold the notes, when you get down to it. So here's hoping President Biden moves forward on the proposal.

Sure Happy It's Thursday vol. 2,694

Some odd stories, some scary stories:

  • Microsoft has released a report on Russia's ongoing cyber attacks against Ukraine.
  • Contra David Ignatius, military policy experts Dr Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds call Russia's invasion of Ukraine "the death throes of imperial delusion" and warn that Putin will likely escalate the conflict rather than face humiliation.
  • Russia historian Tom Nichols puts all of this together and worries about World War III—"not the rhetorical World War III loosely talked about now, but the real thing, including the deaths of hundreds of millions."
  • The Saudi Royal Family finally returned a Boeing 747-8 to the manufacturer after it had sat on the apron in Basel, Switzerland, for 10 years. The plane has 42 hours on it but may have to be scrapped.
  • In other B747 news, Boeing admitted to $1.1 billion in cost overruns for the four planes the Air Force ordered to carry the President. Boeing will eat the costs after making a deal with the XPOTUS for a fixed-price contract. The Air Force should receive the planes in 2026.
  • George Will thinks we should amend the Constitution to prohibit people who have served as US Senators from becoming President. He argues that too many senators use their office to run for president. But since World War II, all but one former senator who became president came from the Democratic Party (Biden, Obama, Nixon, LBJ, JFK, Truman), so I'm not sure it would pass the States even if it didn't also have to pass the Senate.

Finally, DuPage County officials have demolished a partially-completed mansion that sat vacant for 10 years, to the eternal sadness of its owner.

Head (and kittens) exploding!

Leading off today's afternoon roundup, The Oatmeal (Matthew Inman) announced today that Netflix has a series in production based on his game Exploding Kittens. The premise: God and Satan come to Earth—in the bodies of cats. And freakin' Tom Ellis is one of the voices, because he's already played one of those parts.

Meanwhile, in reality:

  • A consumers group filed suit against Green Thumb Industries and three other Illinois-based cannabis companies under the Clayton Act, alleging collusion that has driven retail pot prices above $8,800 per kilo. For comparison, the group alleges that retail prices in California are just $660 per kilo. (Disclosure: The Daily Parker is a GTI shareholder.)
  • Illinois Governor JB Pritzker (D), one of the indirect defendants in the pot suit, signed a $46 billion budget for the state that includes $1.8 billion in temporary tax relief. Apparently, I'll get a $50 check from the State that I can apply to the $600 increase in property taxes Cook County imposed this year, which is nice, but I think the state could have aimed a bit lower on the income cap for that rebate and given more help to other people.
  • Shortly after US District Court Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle (a 35-year-old who never tried a case and who graduated summa cum mediocrae laude from the legal powerhouse University of Florida just 8 years ago and earned a rare "not qualified" rating from the ABA upon her appointment in 2020 by the STBXPOTUS) ruled against the CDC in a case brought by an anti-masker, the DOT dropped mask mandates for public transport and air travel in the US. In related news, the Judge also said it's OK to piss in other people's swimming pools and up to the other swimmers not to drink the water.
  • While the Chicago Piping Plovers organization waits for Monty and Rose to return to Montrose Beach, another one of the endangered birds has landed at Rainbow Beach on the South Side. He appears more inclined to rent than buy, but local ornithologists report the bird has a new profile on the Plōvr dating site.
  • NBC breaks down the three biggest factors driving inflation right now, and yes, one of them is president of Russia. None, however, is president of the US.
  • Along those lines, (sane) Republican writer Sarah Longwell, who publishes The Bulwark, found that 68% of Republicans believe the Big Lie that the XPOTUS won the 2020 election, but "the belief that the election was stolen is not a fully formed thought. It’s more of an attitude, or a tribal pose." Makes me proud to be an American!

And finally, via Bruce Schneier, two interesting bits. First, a new paper explains how a bad actor can introduce a backdoor into a machine learning training session to force specific outcomes (explained in plain English by Cory Doctorow). Second, an attacker used a "flash loan" to take over the Beanstalk crypto currency voting system and stole $182 million from it. Because Crypto Is The Future™.

Readings over lunch

I mean...

  • Josh Marshall takes another look at the astonishing bribe Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler paid to Jared Kushner and concludes it's not just a one-off favor; it's an ongoing relationship.
  • Joan Williams argues that Democrats need to look at the class and economic aspects of the Right's economic populism, and maybe perhaps argue (correctly) that blaming people of color just takes the spotlight off the super-rich who are stealing from the middle?
  • US Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) makes essentially the same argument, with a reminder that the mid-term election is only 202 days away.
  • A homeless-rights organization in Chicago argues that increasing the transfer tax on property sales over $1 million could fund real homelessness relief for real people.

Finally, a quirk in US copyright law has created a bonanza for litigators, along with the original creators of such diverse works as The Thing and Hoosiers.

It's 5pm somewhere

Actually, it's 5pm here. And I have a few stories queued up:

Finally, author John Scalzi puts Rogue One in third place on his ranked list of Star Wars films, with some good reasons.