The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

The Golden Age of Comics

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Art Spiegelman (Maus) submitted an essay for a Marvel Comics compendium to be published this fall, but withdrew it when Marvel asked him to delete a reference to the "Orange Skull." The Guardian published it instead:

Auschwitz and Hiroshima make more sense as dark comic book cataclysms than as events in our real world. In today’s all too real world, Captain America’s most nefarious villain, the Red Skull, is alive on screen and an Orange Skull haunts America. International fascism again looms large (how quickly we humans forget – study these golden age comics hard, boys and girls!) and the dislocations that have followed the global economic meltdown of 2008 helped bring us to a point where the planet itself seems likely to melt down. Armageddon seems somehow plausible and we’re all turned into helpless children scared of forces grander than we can imagine, looking for respite and answers in superheroes flying across screens in our chapel of dreams.

I turned the essay in at the end of June, substantially the same as what appears here. A regretful Folio Society editor told me that Marvel Comics (evidently the co-publisher of the book) is trying to now stay “apolitical”, and is not allowing its publications to take a political stance. I was asked to alter or remove the sentence that refers to the Red Skull or the intro could not be published. I didn’t think of myself as especially political compared with some of my fellow travellers, but when asked to kill a relatively anodyne reference to an Orange Skull I realised that perhaps it had been irresponsible to be playful about the dire existential threat we now live with, and I withdrew my introduction.

A revealing story serendipitously showed up in my news feed this week. I learned that the billionaire chairman and former CEO of Marvel Entertainment, Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter, is a longtime friend of Donald Trump’s, an unofficial and influential adviser and a member of the president’s elite Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida. And Perlmutter and his wife have each recently donated $360,000 (the maximum allowed) to the Orange Skull’s “Trump Victory Joint Fundraising Committee” for 2020. I’ve also had to learn, yet again, that everything is political... just like Captain America socking Hitler on the jaw.

Apolitical indeed.

How to combat influence operations

Bruce Schneier has an eight-step plan—though he recognizes Step 1 might not be possible:

Since the 2016 US presidential election, there have been an endless series of ideas about how countries can defend themselves. It's time to pull those together into a comprehensive approach to defending the public sphere and the institutions of democracy.

Influence operations don't come out of nowhere. They exploit a series of predictable weaknesses -- and fixing those holes should be the first step in fighting them. In cybersecurity, this is known as a "kill chain." That can work in fighting influence operations, too­ -- laying out the steps of an attack and building the taxonomy of countermeasures.

Step 1: Find the cracks in the fabric of society­ -- the social, demographic, economic, and ethnic divisions. For campaigns that just try to weaken collective trust in government's institutions, lots of cracks will do. But for influence operations that are more directly focused on a particular policy outcome, only those related to that issue will be effective.

Countermeasures: There will always be open disagreements in a democratic society, but one defense is to shore up the institutions that make that society possible. Elsewhere I have written about the "common political knowledge" necessary for democracies to function. That shared knowledge has to be strengthened, thereby making it harder to exploit the inevitable cracks. It needs to be made unacceptable -- or at least costly -- for domestic actors to use these same disinformation techniques in their own rhetoric and political maneuvering, and to highlight and encourage cooperation when politicians honestly work across party lines. The public must learn to become reflexively suspicious of information that makes them angry at fellow citizens. These cracks can't be entirely sealed, as they emerge from the diversity that makes democracies strong, but they can be made harder to exploit. Much of the work in "norms" falls here, although this is essentially an unfixable problem. This makes the countermeasures in the later steps even more important.

Also unfortunately, most of the countermeasures require informed and conscientious political leaders. Good luck with that.

Chaotic mind, chaotic world

In another example of how President Trump's incompetence and disordered thinking has real-world consequences, Michelle Goldberg lays out the connection between the president's lies to one leader have caused another country to take a frightening rightward turn:

n July, during a White House visit by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Trump offered to mediate India and Pakistan’s long-running conflict over Kashmir, even suggesting that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to do so. Modi’s government quickly denied this, and Trump’s words reportedly alarmed India, which has long resisted outside involvement in Kashmir. Two weeks later, India sent troops to lock Kashmir down, then stripped it of its autonomy.

Americans have grown used to ignoring Trump’s casual lies and verbal incontinence, but people in other countries have not. Thornton thinks the president’s comments were a “precipitating factor” in Modi’s decision to annex Kashmir. By blundering into the conflict, she suggested, Trump put the Indian prime minister on the defensive before his Hindu nationalist constituency. “He might not have had to do that,” she said of Modi’s Kashmir takeover, “but he would have had to do something. And this was the thing he was looking to do anyway.”

At the same time, Modi can be confident that Trump, unlike previous American presidents, won’t even pretend to care about democratic backsliding or human rights abuses, particularly against Muslims. “There’s a cost-benefit analysis that any political leader makes,” said Ben Rhodes, a former top Obama national security aide. “If the leader of India felt like he was going to face public criticism, potential scrutiny at the United Nations,” or damage to the bilateral relationship with the United States, “that might affect his cost-benefit analysis.” Trump’s instinctive sympathy for authoritarian leaders empowers them diplomatically.

We have, at minimum, 522 more days of this clown. What more damage can he do? I'm not looking forward to finding out.

Why do we have to take this seriously?

When your stupid, racist, age-befuddled uncle says something dumb at Thanksgiving dinner, the best course of action might be to ignore him. Unfortunately, when your stupid, racist, age-befuddled president says something dumb, you have to respond in some way. Which is how the U.S. has now ended up in a diplomatic tiff with, of all places, Denmark:

President Trump faced a fierce European backlash to his reported interest in acquiring Greenland from Denmark, as some lawmakers compared the idea to colonialism on Friday while officials on the island said they welcome investment but not a new owner.

“Of course, Greenland is not for sale,” Greenland’s government said in a statement, echoing earlier remarks by Greenland’s Foreign Minister Ane Lone Bagger.

In its statement, the government said it viewed the reports “as an expression of greater interest in investing in our country and the possibilities we offer.”

The news of Trump’s interest in purchasing Greenland comes ahead of a planned visit to the Danish capital of Copenhagen next month. Danes are worried this will derail the agenda of Trump’s trip.

“It will suck the oxygen out of the room and it will take over everything,” said Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen, a professor at the Institute for Military Operations at the Royal Danish Defence College.

Meanwhile, a Fox News (!) poll shows the four Democratic front-runners easily trouncing the president in 2020. Let's hope so.

Yes, the climate has changed before...just not like this

As our planet warms to global average temperatures not seen in over 125,000 years, a pair of long-range studies has concluded the unique way or climate is changing right now, as opposed to the rest of history:

“The familiar maxim that the climate is always changing is certainly true,” Scott St. George, a physical geographer at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, said in a written commentary about the studies. “But even when we push our perspective to the earliest days of the Roman Empire, we cannot discern any event that is remotely equivalent — either in degree or extent — to the warming over the last few decades.”

One of the studies, published in the journal Nature, shows that the Little Ice Age and other natural fluctuations affected only limited regions of the planet at a time, making modern warming the first and only planetwide warm period in the past two millennia. The other study, published in Nature Geoscience, shows that the rate of modern warming has far outpaced changes that occurred before the rise of the industrial era.

For the Nature Geoscience study, the researchers charted global temperature averages over time, and then compared the data to a set of climate simulations to figure out what might have driven the changes. Neukom and his colleagues found that the fastest warming in the last two millennia occurred during the second half of the 20th century.

The researchers also found that the main cause of temperature fluctuations changed over time. Prior to 1850, fluctuations were mainly linked to volcanic eruptions, which cooled the planet by spewing sun-blocking ash into the stratosphere; after 1850, greenhouse gas emissions took the wheel.

As if to underscore that, today London saw temperatures over 37°C while France and other parts of Europe set new all-time heat records, with a reading of 42.6°C in Paris today.

Old, white Englishmen elect new leader

The Conservative Party membership have elected Boris Johnson, an incompetent layabout and buffoon, to lead the Party, passing over the competent and level-headed Foreign Secretary Jeffrey Hunt by almost a 2:1 majority (92,153 to 46,656). Wednesday afternoon, Johnson will go to Buckingham Palace where, no doubt masterfully hiding her disgust, the Queen will invite him to form what will probably be the last government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Johnson will become the second PM not chosen in a general election, sort of if Gerald Ford had stepped down and made Pat Buchanan President in early 1976. The 92,000 Conservatives who voted for him are nearly all old, white, male, and English, representing only a bit more than 1/10 of 1% of the UK population.

Johnson has pledged to crash the UK out of the European Union by October 31st "do or die," which he may accomplish, though a narrow window still exists for a vote of no confidence followed by the statutory 60 days of dithering before a new election can happen.

The fun bit is that now Johnson completely and totally owns Brexit. His misleading campaign in 2016 persuaded the UK's equivalent of Trumpland to vote by a narrow margin for the policy that will, everyone can see, break Scotland and Northern Ireland out of the Union. And now he gets to lead the country through all that chaos. Only, he hasn't exactly got a record of taking responsibility or even of acknowledging that such a thing can even happen to him, so the next few months should be entertaining. As Guardian columnist Gary Younge said this morning, "The leave campaign had no more plans for leaving the European Union than a dog chasing a car has to drive it."

It's hard not to look at Johnson as less than the apotheosis of upper-class twittery that the Conservative Party has kept alive for a couple of centuries now. And with Labour careening so far to the left under Jeremy Corbyn, it almost seems like we're in for a return to the Callaghan/Heath years of the early 1970s, with the British economy stagnating under state ownership of industry while a patrician right-wing Tory party offers to do in the NHS.

And the best part? All of this is in Russia's best interests. We're going back to the '70s all right, only this time, the Soviets are winning.

Things I don't have time to read right now

But I will take the time as soon as I get it:

Now, I need more tea, and more coding.

Speculative fiction in the Economist

This week's Economist features a collection of "what-if" stories that attempt to present near-future events well within the realm of possibility. First up, what if an American destroyer were surrounded by small Chinese boats in the contested waters of the South China Sea...next October?

The official account of the crisis begins with a terse Pentagon statement, issued on October 9th, that the McCampbell, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer, had been forced to stop in international waters by vessels “answering to China’s military chain of command” while conducting a “routine, lawful transit in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands”.

The Pentagon demanded that China allow the McCampbel“and all its equipment” to continue its passage. The reference to equipment was clarified an hour later when Xinhua, China’s state news agency, released a video showing Chinese fishermen with boathooks grabbing at a half-submerged underwater drone fouled in a net, described as an American spy submarine. A second Xinhua video showed an inflatable speedboat, manned by armed American sailors, apparently adjacent to the drone but trapped by two dozen Chinese fishing boats organised into a ring formation.

Both countries agree on some of what happened next. After about 30 minutes the American inflatable broke through the circle of fishing boats as sailors fired shots with their small arms, and returned to the destroyer, where Ji-Hoon Kim, one of the speedboat’s crew, was reported missing. Soon afterwards a growing fleet of Chinese fishing trawlers, many of them flying large red flags, surrounded the McCampbell.

Could this happen? Absolutely. How would it end? I suppose that depends on the temperaments of the leaders in both countries...

Other speculations include the departure of Facebook from Europe, the failure of most antibiotics, America's withdrawal from NATO, and an historical one speculating on the Allies being more reasonable with the Central Powers in 1919.

Record heat in Europe

Significant changes in the northern jet stream has caused serious problems for Europe and South Asia:

Unusual jet stream behavior has been recorded every three to five years since 2000 — in 2003, 2006, 2010, 2015 and 2018 — turning what scientists initially thought could be an isolated abnormality into what appears to be a pattern, [Jeff Masters, co-founder and director of meteorology for Weather Underground] said.

What is surprising to scientists now is that the wavier-than-normal jet stream has returned for a second year in a row — the first time that has been observed, said Kai Kornhuber, a climate scientist at The Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York City.

“I wouldn’t have expected this situation to return so quickly after the extreme summer last year,” Kornhuber said. “It gives me the chills to see this evolving in real time again. It’s a really worrying development.”

This weather pattern brought temperatures over 45°C to France earlier this week:

The highest reliable June temperature previously recorded in France was 41.5°C on 21 June 2003. The country’s highest ever temperature, recorded at two separate locations in southern France on 12 August during the same 2003 heatwave, was 44.1°C.

“At our local Potsdam station, operating since 1893, we’re set to break the past June record by about 2C,” tweeted Stefan Rahmstorf, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Eastern parts of Germany, including Berlin, are already experiencing their hottest June on record.

“Weather data show that heatwaves and other weather extremes are on the rise in recent decades,” he said. “The hottest summers in Europe since the year AD1500 all occurred since the turn of the last century: 2018, 2010, 2003, 2016, 2002.”

Monthly records were now falling five times as often as they would in a stable climate, Rahmstorf said, adding this was “a consequence of global warming caused by the increasing greenhouse gases from burning coal, oil and gas”.

And the band played on...

A timeless hoax by a government agency

NPR and other outlets reported earlier this week that the far-north Norwegian island of Sommaroy planned to abolish timekeeping:

If the 350 residents of Sommaroy get their way, the clocks will stop ticking and the alarms will cease their noise. A campaign to do away with timekeeping on the island has gained momentum as Norway's parliament considers the island's petition.

Kjell Ove Hveding spearheaded the No Time campaign and presented his petition to a member of parliament on June 13. During the endless summer days, islanders meet up at all hours and the conventions of time are meaningless, Hveding says.

Only, a subsequent press release admitted the whole thing was a marketing campaign:

NRK.no revealed today that the initiative to make Sommarøy a time-free zone was in fact a carefully planned marketing campaign, hatched by the government-owned Innovation Norway.

The story has been covered in more than 1650 articles in 1479 different media, including CNN, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Independent, Time, El País, La Repubblica, Vanity Fair and Der Spiegel, potentially reaching 1.2 billion people. The value of the coverage is estimated to 11.4 million USD - a pretty good return on investment for Innovation Norway, which spent less than 60,000 USD on the campaign.

Paul Koning, one of the moderators of the IANA Time Zone group--the group that maintains the Time Zone Database used in millions of computers, phones, and applications worldwide, including The Daily Parker--was not pleased:

That's very disturbing. It's problematic enough that not all governments give timely notice about time zone rule changes.

But if in addition we have to deal with government agencies supplying deliberately false information, the TZ work becomes that much more difficult.

Difficult indeed. The group has to deal with dictators changing time zones with almost no notice, political groups attacking the spellings of time zone identifiers, and all sorts of hassles. For a government agency to do this on purpose is not cool.