The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Au revoir au Grand K

The International Bureau of Weights and Measures voted earlier today to ditch the platinum-iridium prototype kilogram in favor of a value of mass based on Planck's constant. The Post explains:

Since the 19th century, scientists have based their definition of the fundamental unit of mass on a physical object — a shining platinum iridium cylinder stored in a locked vault in the bowels of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) in Sevres, France. A kilogram was equal to the heft of this aging hunk of metal, and this cylinder, by definition, weighed exactly a kilogram. If the cylinder changed, even a little bit, then the entire global system of measurement had to change, too.

With Friday’s vote, scientists redefined the kilogram for the 21st century by tying it to a fundamental feature of the universe — a small, strange figure from quantum physics known as Planck’s constant, which describes the smallest possible unit of energy.

In 1875, the signing of the Treaty of the Metre made the system official. Two platinum and iridium prototypes — a meter-length bar and a kilogram-mass cylinder — were forged to serve as the standard units for the whole world. The BIPM distributed copies of each prototype to the signatory nations; the century-old U.S. national kilogram still sits in a glass case in a locked room down the hall from Pratt’s lab.

But the kilogram prototype, known as “Le Grand K,” was made by humans and is subject to all our limitations. It is inaccessible — the safe containing the cylinder can be opened only by three custodians carrying three separate keys, an event that has happened fewer than a dozen times in the object’s 139-year history. And it is inconsistent — when Le Grand K was examined in the 1980s, it weighed several micrograms less than it was supposed to. This meant that anyone who made products based on the standards had to reissue their weights. Manufacturers were furious. Lawmakers were called. Metrologists, people who study measurements, were accused of incompetence.

The article doesn't say what the Bureau will do with the kilogram prototype.

Sex!

Both The Atlantic and the New York Times have penetrating articles on the subject today. First, Kate Julian examines why young people are having less sex, despite the relaxation of taboos around it:

many other experts, attributes the sex decline to a decline in couplehood among young people. For a quarter century, fewer people have been marrying, and those who do have been marrying later. At first, many observers figured that the decline in marriage was explained by an increase in unmarried cohabitation—yet the share of people living together hasn’t risen enough to offset the decline in marriage: About 60 percent of adults under age 35 now live without a spouse or a partner. One in three adults in this age range live with their parents, making that the most common living arrangement for the cohort. People who live with a romantic partner tend to have sex more than those who don’t—and living with your parents is obviously bad for your sex life. But this doesn’t explain why young people are partnering up less to begin with.

Over the course of many conversations with sex researchers, psychologists, economists, sociologists, therapists, sex educators, and young adults, I heard many other theories about what I have come to think of as the sex recession. I was told it might be a consequence of the hookup culture, of crushing economic pressures, of surging anxiety rates, of psychological frailty, of widespread antidepressant use, of streaming television, of environmental estrogens leaked by plastics, of dropping testosterone levels, of digital porn, of the vibrator’s golden age, of dating apps, of option paralysis, of helicopter parents, of careerism, of smartphones, of the news cycle, of information overload generally, of sleep deprivation, of obesity. Name a modern blight, and someone, somewhere, is ready to blame it for messing with the modern libido.

Some experts I spoke with offered more hopeful explanations for the decline in sex. For example, rates of childhood sexual abuse have decreased in recent decades, and abuse can lead to both precocious and promiscuous sexual behavior. And some people today may feel less pressured into sex they don’t want to have, thanks to changing gender mores and growing awareness of diverse sexual orientations, including asexuality. Maybe more people are prioritizing school or work over love and sex, at least for a time, or maybe they’re simply being extra deliberate in choosing a life partner—and if so, good for them.

Of course, the best solution for a recession is a stimulus package that encourages growth. I am in favor of this policy.

Ross Douthat, commenting on Julian's article, attributes the decline of civilization sex to porn and masturbation as Aldous Huxley predicted:

Conservatives didn’t expect it because they believed that sexual liberation would inevitably lead to social chaos — that if you declared consent the only standard of sexual morality and encouraged young people to define fulfillment libidinally, you would get not only promiscuity but also a host of dire secondary consequences: Teen pregnancy rates and abortion rates rising together, a pornography-abetted spike in rape and sexual violence, higher crime rates among fatherless young men … basically everything that seemed to be happening in the 1970s and 1980s, when the anti-porn crusade Alberta describes was strongest.

But many of those grim social trends stabilized or turned around in the 1990s, and instead of turning teenage boys into rapists, the internet-enabled victory of pornographic culture had, perhaps, the opposite effect.

But liberal optimists were wrong as well — wrong to expect that the new order would bring about a clear increase in sexual fulfillment, wrong to anticipate a healthy integration of sexual desire and romantic attachment, wrong to assume that a happily egalitarian relationship between the sexes awaited once puritanism was rejected and repression cast aside.

Instead we’ve achieved social stability through, in part, the substitution of self-abuse for intercourse, the crowding-out of real-world interactions by virtual entertainment, and the growing alienation of the sexes from one another.

Again, I see an opportunity here for a solution that benefits, if not everyone, at least the participants in the solution.

I can't wait for the comments...

Lunchtime reading

I didn't have a moment to write any code from 9am until now, so my lunch will include doing the stuff I didn't do in all those meetings. At some point I'll get to these:

Now, back to writing code, as soon as I make yet another vet appointment for my bête noir.

Gravely researching climate change

It turns out, cemeteries provide really good observational data on climate change:

[T]he value of this greenspace has only grown as the communities around them have densified and urbanized — leaving cemeteries as unique nature preserves. In the case of Mount Auburn, people have consciously planted diverse trees, shrubs, and flowers from all over the world and cared for them tenderly over decades or even centuries. In other cases, though, plants that might otherwise be replaced by foreign varietals can thrive under a cemetery’s more passive management style, like the prairie cemeteries of Illinois, or even the woodsy outerboroughs of New York City.

At Mount Auburn [outside Boston], a team of interdisciplinary scientists now train volunteers in phenological data collection. In the spring, they look for things like bursting buds, insect onset, and the effect of shifting timescales on migratory birds. Later in the year, they monitor the duration of autumn. To ensure accuracy, the specific trees under observation are marked throughout the cemetery; this dogwood, that gingko. And all of this data is shared with the national network. “What we know is that plants are now flowering about two weeks earlier than they did in Thoreau’s time, and trees are also leafing out about two weeks earlier,” Boston University biology professor Richard Primack told local radio station WBUR. “And we know that birds are arriving a couple of days earlier than in Thoreau’s time.” What we learn next will come from the logs Mount Auburn’s team is making now.

Just an aside, I live in an 800-meter-wide neighborhood situated between two large cemeteries. They share a population of coyotes who frequently use the streets and alleys to move between them. This is the closer of the two:

Monopsony effects on workers

This morning we in the US got the news that the employment rebound that started under President Obama has continued, giving us the best employment picture in 50 years. Yet at the same time, despite robust wage growth in some places, families still feel squeezed.

The Economist suggests this may come in part from business concentration depressing wages through the same mechanism through which monopsonies increase prices:

In perfectly competitive markets, individual firms wishing to sell their widgets must charge the prevailing market price and no higher. But the situation changes when one or a few firms dominate a market. A monopolist may charge higher prices. The calculation is that consumers, faced with little choice, will buy enough of its offerings at a higher price to yield greater profits. But some sales are lost because of monopoly pricing, which represents a “deadweight loss” to society—a missed opportunity to raise total welfare. Monopolies can also stifle innovation. AT&T, America’s once-mighty telecoms firm, used its dominant position in the operation of local phone networks to overcharge consumers for service and handsets. It took the break-up of the network monopoly to clear the way for falling prices and innovation.

Just as powerful firms may use their clout to overcharge customers, they can also manipulate markets to pay lower wages. In competitive labour markets an individual employer can do little to squeeze pay, because workers can easily find better-paying jobs. But in a “monopsony”, such as a mining town with only one mine, workers have fewer options. Firms can offer wages below the competitive-market rate knowing that many workers will not be able to afford to turn them down. As with monopolies, this exercise of monopsony power boosts profits but saddles society with a deadweight loss—the underemployment of workers—as well as other costs, such as higher spending on state benefits.

To date, governments have been too focused on the harms to customers from increasing industrial concentration. A consideration of the impact on workers is overdue. Without competition, large firms become exploitative bureaucracies that are accountable to no one. Consumers and workers alike deserve better.

Witness Amazon.

Statistics reporting is hard

No, we have not wiped out 60% of all animals, FFS:

Since Monday, news networks and social media have been abuzz with the claim that, as The Guardian among others tweeted, “humanity has wiped out 60 percent of animals since 1970”—a stark and staggering figure based on the latest iteration of the WWF’s Living Planet report.

But that isn’t really what the report showed.

Ultimately, they found that between 1970 and 2014, the size of vertebrate populations has declined by 60 percent on average. That is absolutely not the same as saying that humans have culled 60 percent of animals—a distinction that the report’s technical supplement explicitly states. “It is not a census of all wildlife but reports how wildlife populations have changed in size,” the authors write.

CityLab's article includes math, that turns out not to be difficult in the least.

The report is still alarming, of course. But not in the way some science reporters seem to believe.

Daily Parker election-year bait

CityLab discusses a University of Richmond project to map Congressional elections going back to 1840:

“Electing the House” makes the most robust and comprehensive dataset to-date of Congressional elections available in a user-friendly format, offering additional dimension of insight into the current political moment. It is the first part of a series, which may include visualizations of historical data on Senate elections in the future. Theproject features an interactive map, presenting each district color-coded based on the party that won in each Congressional election between 1840 and 2016. Toggling the option in the legend can isolate just the districts that have flipped one way or the other for each election year. (The first Congress was elected in 1788, but the researchers started with 1840 because that’s the year the data become sufficiently reliable.)

The interactive also allows users to view the data in the form of a cartogram, where each district is represented as a discrete bubble and the ones in populous metropolitan areas cluster together. This version gives a sense of the rural-urban divide in political representation over time. By clicking on a single district, the interactive allows users to explore its particular political trajectory.

The map also allows users to trace the constantly changing geography of Congressional districts—through regular redistricting and partisan gerrymandering. Below are a series of maps showing the evolution of North Carolina’s 12th district—the most gerrymandered district in America, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. “It snakes from north of Greensboro, to Winston-Salem, and then all the way down to Charlotte, spanning most of the state in the process,” writes the Post’s Christopher Ingraham. It’s been drawn up this way by Republicans to squeeze their opponents’ supporters into one Congressional district. You can see it getting skinner and more irregular over time.

Don't forget to vote next Tuesday, if you haven't already.

Enough Bothsidesism

The journalistic fetish with trying to find balance when none exists has cropped up today in reporting on President Trump's false assertion that he can end birthright citizenship by executive order. He simply has no such power; the 14th Amendment lays out the rule in plain English.

Of course, the president doesn't actually intend to draft such an order. He was lying. Anyone paying attention to the man for any length of time can see that, except perhaps his base, who tend to have a limited grasp of what the Constitution actually says. Josh Marshall calls the president's stunt "a completely ridiculous idea, a sort of clown-show trial-run at rule by decree."

But enter the Post, the Tribune, and countless other newspapers today who have (a) given this lie front-page attention and (b) fallen back on the "most experts agree" language that suggests any doubt about the executive's power to change the Constitution by simple order. No; this is absolute nonsense. (Technically, it was bullshit*, but a particularly ridiculous example of it.)

"Some legal experts" have suggested that birthright citizenship hasn't actually been tested in court; they're flat wrong, as the Post explained in a 2015 article on the subject:

As the justice who authored the majority opinion in U.S. vs. Wong Kim Ark wrote, “to hold that the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution excludes from citizenship the children, born in the United States, of citizens or subjects of other countries would be to deny citizenship to thousands of persons of English, Scotch, Irish, German, or other European parentage who have always been considered and treated as citizens of the United States.” Had the decision gone the other way, Salyer said, instead of a nation of immigrants, America would have become “colonies of foreigners.”

(Yes, that means the president is totally Wong about his power here.)

Paul Krugman has also had enough of this kind of reporting:

False equivalence, portraying the parties as symmetric even when they clearly aren’t, has long been the norm among self-proclaimed centrists and some influential media figures. It’s a stance that has hugely benefited the GOP, as it has increasingly become the party of right-wing extremists.

You might have thought that the horrifying events of recent days would finally break through that norm. But you would have been wrong. Bothsidesism is, it turns out, a fanatical cult impervious to evidence. Trump famously boasted that his supporters would stick with him even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue; what he didn’t point out was that pundits would piously attribute the shooting to “incivility,” and that Sunday talk shows would feature Fifth-Avenue-shooting advocates and give them a respectful hearing.

This needs to stop, and those who keep practicing bothsidesism need to be shamed. At this point, pretending that both sides are equally to blame, or attributing political violence to spreading hatred without identifying who’s responsible for that spread, is a form of deep cowardice.

Hear, hear!

But alas. We still have this clown for 813 more days. Fortunately, we get a new Congress in 65.

* Read Harry Frankfurt's column on Donald Trump, written before the 2016 election. I imagine none of Frankfurt's opinions has changed.

Why Treasure Island died

Crain's has some good reporting on why local grocery chain Treasure Island went out of business this month:

After Christ Kamberos' death, Maria Kamberos became president and CEO and appointed her son, Christ Kamberos Jr., vice president of development. (Frank Kamberos, who is in his 90s, ceased playing an active role in the chain long ago. Whether he remains an owner in Treasure Island could not be determined, but public records show he does retain ownership, along with Maria Kamberos, of the real estate affiliated with the stores.) They renovated the Gold Coast store in 2013 and the Lake Shore Drive location last year, though some shoppers were underwhelmed by the efforts in comparison to the new Whole Foods and Mariano's stores that cropped up after the demise of Dominick's. As recently as October 2017—a decade after opening in Hyde Park, its newest location—Christ Kamberos Jr. said publicly that the company would open an eighth location in a new luxury apartment development in Uptown. (The store never materialized.)

But inside the stores and the corporate office, employees say, operations notably deteriorated at the beginning of 2018.

Inventory deliveries were intermittent for most of 2018, according to six employees, all of whom asked not to be named. Photos provided to Crain's by a senior employee show a loaf of Treasure Island bakery bread with a July 24, 2018, sell-by sticker placed on top of an original July 4 sticker. Moreover, store-level employees say paychecks not deposited immediately would sometimes take days to clear or would bounce.

Personal squabbles; corner-cutting that backfired; treating employees badly; and the rise of Whole Foods and Mariano's. Those things killed Treasure Island.