The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Vieques post-Maria

The New York Times talked to people on the American island of Vieques and has this report on the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria two weeks ago:

The 9,000 people living on this island eight miles east of the Puerto Rican mainland have been largely cut off from the world for 11 days since Hurricane Maria hit, with no power or communications and, for many, no running water. People scan the skies and the sea hoping to sight the emergency aid that has been arriving drip by drip, on boats, in helicopters or in the bellies of eight-seat propeller planes.

“We’re on this island, we can’t get off it,” Aleida Tolentino, 56, said on Saturday, as she gazed out over the brown hillsides of uprooted trees and branches stripped of every leaf, with rain rolling in from the east.

The grinding lack of electricity and communications services has created archipelagos of isolation across Puerto Rico. Dozens of towns and neighborhoods, from the coffee-growing mountains to the industrial shoals of the capital, are now virtual islands unto themselves, stranded by destroyed roads, downed cables and splintered cellphone towers.

Even death is an emergency. On Saturday morning, Marlon Esquilín, the funeral director in Isabel Segunda, opened the doors of his hearse to pull out the blackbagged body of an older woman who had died of natural causes the night before.

Someone stole his generator, so he has no power to embalm bodies, and no way to keep them cold in storage. The hospital’s backup generator was also stolen, he said, so he cannot keep bodies there either.

The island has been blasted back to the 19th Century. If only it were part of the United States, then maybe we could help them. Oh, wait...

Could have been worse

An Air France A380 carrying 520 passengers lost an engine over the Atlantic this weekend:

“Flight 066 landed without further damage at the Goose Bay military airport in Canada and all of the 520 people on board were evacuated with no injuries,” an Air France spokesman in Paris said.

Video and photo images posted on social media, apparently by passengers or their relatives, showed extensive damage to the front of the outer starboard engine, with part of its external cowling stripped away.

The cause of the problem was unknown, with one of the plane’s passengers suggesting that a bird might have collided with the engine which was damaged.

There are many potential causes of the engine losing its cowling in flight, but a bird strike at FL400 is not likely one of them.

Also, the passengers were never in any danger. Four-engine planes have to be able to fly upwards of 275 km on two engines to pass certification.

New project meetings

Yesterday and today I've been in meetings all day starting a new project at work. Unusually for my career, the project is not only a matter of public record, but the work will be in the public domain. That's right: I'm doing a project for the largest organization in the world, the United States Government.

Some parts of the project touch on confidential information, and I'm going to remain professionally discrete about the project details. But the project itself is unclassified, and we have permission from the sponsor to discuss it openly.

I'll have more about it tomorrow, including a photo or two I never thought I'd be able to take, let alone share publicly. Stay tuned.

Hidden complexity in software could be a problem

The Atlantic worries that there's a "coming software apocalypse:"

There will be more bad days for software. It's important that we get better at making it, because if we don't, and as software becomes more sophisticated and connected—as it takes control of more critical functions—those days could get worse.

The problem is that programmers are having a hard time keeping up with their own creations. Since the 1980s, the way programmers work and the tools they use have changed remarkably little. There is a small but growing chorus that worries the status quo is unsustainable. “Even very good programmers are struggling to make sense of the systems that they are working with,” says Chris Granger, a software developer who worked as a lead at Microsoft on Visual Studio, an IDE that costs $1,199 a year and is used by nearly a third of all professional programmers. He told me that while he was at Microsoft, he arranged an end-to-end study of Visual Studio, the only one that had ever been done. For a month and a half, he watched behind a one-way mirror as people wrote code. “How do they use tools? How do they think?” he said. “How do they sit at the computer, do they touch the mouse, do they not touch the mouse? All these things that we have dogma around that we haven’t actually tested empirically.”

The findings surprised him. “Visual Studio is one of the single largest pieces of software in the world,” he said. “It’s over 55 million lines of code. And one of the things that I found out in this study is more than 98 percent of it is completely irrelevant. All this work had been put into this thing, but it missed the fundamental problems that people faced. And the biggest one that I took away from it was that basically people are playing computer inside their head.” 

I'm not sure that there's a coming apocalypse. Things get more complex; we have adapted pretty well as a species. I imagine taking any of today's top technologists forward 1000 or 2000 years (or even 100 or 200) and watching their heads explode. A bronze-age Egyptian wouldn't understand a telescope. An iron-age Roman wouldn't understand movable type. And Guttenberg himself wouldn't understand a light bulb, let alone the 1920x1200 LED monitors I have in front of me.

So I'm not too worried about an apocalypse. But as a programmer, I'm very worried about crappy software.

Also, it's interesting that the author singled out Visual Studio, which is the tool I use most often to write software. (I wrote all this blog's customizations with it, for example.)

Whew

After a high temperature of 33°C yesterday (the 7th in a row above 32°C), a much-anticipated cold front came through overnight (as predicted). It's now 18°C. But:

Indications are that the air mass will begin to moderate Sunday, with another warmer-than-normal period a good part of next week. This time around, daily highs should approach the 27°C mark.

Rain looks to be sparse at least until the middle of next week.

That last bit is important, because we're having a drought. But at least it's delightfully cool.

Heat to break tonight; millions rejoice

Chicago is having its 7th consecutive day of 32°C-plus heat, including 5 straight days above 33°C, a new record for this late in the season. Fortunately, a cold front is marching across the prairie and promises to bring a 15°C temperature drop overnight and high temperatures in the 20s for the rest of the week.

We didn't have a horrible summer here. So we're not thrilled that the crisp, cool days of autumn have been delayed a full month. But tomorrow we can open our windows again.

What does Tinder know about you?

Via Bruce Schneier, a British reporter requested her data dossier from Tinder. As with so many other things in life, she was shocked, but not surprised:

The dating app has 800 pages of information on me, and probably on you too if you are also one of its 50 million users. In March I asked Tinder to grant me access to my personal data. Every European citizen is allowed to do so under EU data protection law, yet very few actually do, according to Tinder.

With the help of privacy activist Paul-Olivier Dehaye from personaldata.io and human rights lawyer Ravi Naik, I emailed Tinder requesting my personal data and got back way more than I bargained for.

Some 800 pages came back containing information such as my Facebook “likes”, my photos from Instagram (even after I deleted the associated account), my education, the age-rank of men I was interested in, how many times I connected, when and where every online conversation with every single one of my matches happened … the list goes on.

What will happen if this treasure trove of data gets hacked, is made public or simply bought by another company? I can almost feel the shame I would experience. The thought that, before sending me these 800 pages, someone at Tinder might have read them already makes me cringe.

Tinder’s privacy policy clearly states: “you should not expect that your personal information, chats, or other communications will always remain secure”. As a few minutes with a perfectly clear tutorial on GitHub called Tinder Scraper that can “collect information on users in order to draw insights that may serve the public” shows, Tinder is only being honest.

But as Schneier points out, "It's not [just] Tinder. Surveillance is the business model of the Internet. Everyone does this."

Two on Trump's mindset

First, New Republic's Jeet Heer calls President Trump "truly the first TV president and a harbinger of the decline in intelligence" in American politics:

While earlier presidents, notably John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, benefited from being telegenic, they were still tied to an earlier, pre-television world in ways that Trump isn’t. (If Kennedy was the magazine-star president, Reagan was the film-star president.) He’s a pure product of the age of television, someone whose mental horizon is the screen. And television isn’t just a passive medium for Trump, his main source for understanding how Americans think. As the star of the long-running reality show The Apprentice, where he played the tough, no-nonsense boss who relishes firing people, Trump actively used TV to shape how millions of Americans think of him.

The key insight of the McLuhan school is that print culture is deliberative, while television is performative. Typographical fixity preserves, and gives a certain permanence to, written thought. It doesn’t just transmit information; it creates habits of thought, and encourages the cross-examination of ideas. On television, by contrast, everything is in a perpetual present, an endless flux. No wonder Trump, a master of television, has no permanence of thought. He shifts his positions depending on opportunistic ambitions or passing whim, sometimes motivated by nothing more than a desire to echo whom he is talking to. Indeed, sometimes his ideas are little more than echoes of what he sees on Fox.

In last year’s election, nearly 63 million Americans supported a presidential candidate who was proudly post-literate. This is a testimony to the rising right-wing anti-intellectualism in the U.S., where being well read and well educated is not to be admired—or even something to aspire to—but rather bestows the black mark of elitism. The question remains: Is this a passing trend, or just a sign of things to come? The dumbing-down of American life, as traced by McLuhan and his descendants, suggests the latter. Just as Bush seems downright scholarly compared to Trump, we may one day look back at Trump and admire his ability to follow a teleprompter.

Meanwhile, Josh Marshall sounds another alarm at Trump's increasing militarism and always-present authoritarianism:

What we’re seeing today from President Trump is a very specific danger with the militarization of civic culture: an anti-democratic leader can use military sacrifice as a totem to squelch dissent.

[A]s [a Twitter image of a disabled Marine in uniform] is used here, you can see the whole mindset, use of loss and blood as a cudgel in its most brutal form. The act of protest is enrolled as a specific disrespect of this man who has had his body ripped apart in military violence. Images like this, combined with these words, are meant to inspire rage at the targets of the attack.  Guilt, admiration and vicarious horror are transmuted not simply into opposition but rage at dissenters.

[T]he weaponization of betrayed military sacrifice is a common, almost universal feature of rightist political movements.

Yep. And it works, if enough of the polity believes it. I hope we can get through this ugly phase of our history intact. And I'm not even commenting on James Fallows' shock at Trump railing on about black NFL players.