The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Stuff I'm reading this weekend

From the usual sources:

Time to walk the dog.

This sort of thing has cropped up before

...and it has always been due to human error.

Today, I don't mean the HAL-9000. Amtrak:

Amtrak said “human error” is to blame for the disrupted service yesterday at Union Station.

A worker fell on a circuit board, which turned off computers and led to the service interruption, according to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.

The delay lasted more than 12 hours and caused significant overcrowding at Union Station.

The error affected more than 60,000 Amtrak and Metra passengers taking trains from Union to the suburbs, according to reports. Some riders resorted to taking the CTA or using ride-sharing services to get home, Chicago Tribune reported.

An analysis of the signal system failures and determined they were caused by “human error in the process of deploying a server upgrade in our technology facility that supports our dispatch control system” at Union Station, Amtrak said in a statement. Amtrak apologized in the statement for failing to provide the service that’s expected of it.

Which led my co-workers to wonder, why the hell were they doing a critical server upgrade in the middle of the day?

Boring Chicago politics

Tomorrow is Chicago's mayoral election (with an expected run-off on April 2nd), which is only one of the problems facing Elon Musk's proposal to build a high-speed rail line from O'Hare to the Loop:

The so-called O’Hare Express project sounded like the stuff of science fiction and for [36th Ward Alderman Gilbert] Villegas, it still is. The former Marine and Gulf War veteran’s inaugural trip on a retrofitted Tesla Model X in a mile-long tunnel in Southern California topped out at 40 mph and was bumpy going. He described the ride as uneven, like the feeling of driving a car on an unpaved road. “It wasn’t as smooth as I thought it would be,” Villegas told The Verge. “It certainly felt too experimental for someone to invest a billion dollars in.”

In June, Musk said that one of the reasons he chose Chicago to host the first “publicly useful” Boring Company venture was that “the number of approving authorities is small.”

He had reason to believe that he had automatic approval from one of those authorities — the Chicago City Council. Musk’s bromance with [Chicago Mayor Rahm] Emanuel is strong. During their joint press conference in Chicago last June, the mayor praised Musk as “one of the great visionaries of our time” and jokingly asked for Boring Company stock.

Emanuel’s decision not to seek re-election (he’s abdicating power to write a book about why mayors rule the world) is disastrous for Musk’s O’Hare Express.

It’s possible that Musk could successfully sell his futuristic tunnel to the 14 mayoral candidates lined up to succeed Emanuel in May, but that prospect looks equally bleak. When asked to their opinion on O’Hare Express, the response from Chicago’s mayors-to-be has ranged from neutrality to open contempt.

“It’s going to die on its own. This thing is goofy,” said former Chicago Public Schools chairman Gery Chico during a candidate forum earlier this month according to the Chicago Tribune. Paul Vallas, another mayoral hopeful, had harsher words: “I’d kill it,” said Vallas according to the Tribune. “I can’t wait to kill it.”

Well, that's all pretty unfortunate. I would love to see high-speed rail from O'Hare, but I also know how this city works. We'll get it someday. Just not in the 2020s.

Stuff that piled up this week

I've had a lot going on this week, including seeing an excellent production of Elektra at Lyric Opera of Chicago last night, so I haven't had time to read all of these articles:

And I shall begin reading these...soon. Maybe tomorrow. Sigh.

Actually, it is rocket science: personal edition

One of my friends from high school, Beth Moses, today became the 571st person to travel into space:

Virgin Galactic sent three human beings on Unity for the first time in Friday's supersonic test flight, which reached three times the speed of sound on its way up. Just before the flight, Richard Branson's space tourism company told CNBC that astronaut trainer Beth Moses is on the company's spacecraft Unity, along with the two pilots.

"Beth Moses is on board as a crew member," a Virgin Galactic spokeswoman told CNBC. "She will be doing validation of some of the cabin design elements."

The mission launched horizontally, rather than the traditional vertical method of launching rockets. The jet-powered mothership Eve lifted the spacecraft Unity, taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port. Upon reaching an altitude above 40,000 feet, the carrier aircraft released Unity.

MacKay and Masucci then piloted the spacecraft in a roaring burn. The flight pushed Unity to a speed of Mach 3, which is three times the speed of sound, as it screamed into a climb.

After performing a slow backflip in microgravity, Unity turned, gliding back to land at the runway it took off from about an hour earlier. Unity is the name of the spacecraft built by The Spaceship Company, which Branson also owns. This rocket design is officially known as SpaceShipTwo.

When Beth was in high school, she said she wanted to be an astronaut. After a long career at NASA she joined Virgin Galactic as their chief astronaut instructor. And today, she made history.

Congratulations, Beth! You're officially out of this world.

Beth Moses, center. (Photo courtesy of Danielle Cosma.)

Changing ideas of romance, or just more awareness?

Writing for the Washington Post, columnist Monica Hesse examines how our understanding of the famous V-J Day photo of George Mendonsa kissing Greta Zimmer Friedman have changed between then and Mendonsa's death this week:

Within 24 hours of his passing, a Sarasota, Fla., statue that re-created his and Friedman’s famous kiss was defaced. On Friedman’s aluminum leg, in red spray paint, someone had written, “#MeToo.”

As much as any image, the picture of Mendonsa and Friedman has defined American perception of romance. It’s Richard Gere nipping at Julia Roberts’s fingers with a jewelry box; it’s John Cusack with a boombox beneath Ione Skye’s window. Mendonsa’s grip around Friedman’s waist is fervent; her body is limp as if overwhelmed by the passion of his embrace. Behold, the superlative ideal of a perfect kiss.

Maybe it could be wonderful and exciting to be kissed, by surprise, by a stranger, at the end of a long and terrible war. But when you hear Friedman’s description of it, the whole thing starts to sound unpleasant. The whole photo starts to look unpleasant, too: the way her head is locked into the crook of his elbow, unable to move or avoid his lips.

I’d like to think of it more as a statement of fact. Today, this iconic photo might be considered an assault. It doesn’t mean Mendonsa was a monster. It doesn’t mean humans were bad in 1945. It just means that stories don’t always behave as we’d like. Our fantasies can be punctured by the reality of other people’s feelings.

Friedman said she and Mendonsa kept in occasional contact and exchanged holiday cards. When a Life photographer invited the pair to reunite in Times Square in 1980, she went. But she said she didn’t want to reenact the kiss.

A kiss based on one person’s joy and another person’s non-consenting shock isn’t really a perfect kiss. And actually, it never was.

What images from 2019 will look weird in 2094? Someone with a time machine, please let me know.

An end to civil forfeiture?

The US Supreme Court ruled today that the 8th Amendment rule against "excessive fines" applies to the states as well as to the Federal Government:

The decision is a victory for an Indiana man whose luxury SUV was seized after he pleaded guilty to selling heroin. It is also a blow to state and local governments, for whom fines and forfeitures have become an important source of funds.

In an opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court seemed to regard the basic question before it as an easy one. The justices explained that the “historical and logical case for concluding that” the ban on excessive fines applies to the states through the 14th Amendment – which bars states from depriving anyone “of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” – is “overwhelming.”

States and municipalities have relied on civil forfeiture laws for revenue over the past three decades or so, with ridiculous and horrifying results. Today's decision will go a long way to curbing those abuses.

Two stories of North American irrationality

First, William Giraldi, writing in Medium, proclaims "[e]verything you need to know about the mess that is America in 2019 can be explained by our deepening national belief that Bigfoot is real:"

Bigfooters believe they are questing for bipedal apes in California, but they are really questing for their own lost boyhoods, their Boy Scout days, those formative experiences in the woodlands of fancy and faith, and for the thrill of certain belief as it was before the adult world broke in to bludgeon it.

Remember that preadolescent frisson, the dread-tinged excitement of knowing, absolutely knowing, that monsters were real, not the myths, folklores, and allegories that adulthood insists they are? If Wordsworth laments adulthood’s injection of sobriety and rationality into the childhood sublime, Bigfooters aren’t having it. They’ve found a means of resurrecting that boyish wonder, of plugging back into the child’s reciprocal, imaginative bond with nature. If it comes at the cost of evidence — to say nothing of dignity — since when have children ever bothered with evidence? These scientists and their mocking, scoffing facts are a drag. What did John Keats says about Isaac Newton’s achievements with light? “He destroyed the poetry of a rainbow by reducing it to a prism.”

In concert with their wish to plug back into their boyhoods, these men, loose in the woods, are searching for the approval and acceptance of other men. No optional male group endeavor, none, is exempt from this law, one that hearkens back to the mastodon hunt, during which a male proved himself worthy of the clan and thus worthy of the protection and resources the clan controlled.

Which isn’t to say that time in the woods is idyllic. Believer and journalist John Green, the grandfather of Sasquatchia, once wrote, “The average sasquatch hunter is so pig-headed that two of them together are pretty sure to have a falling out before long… People who will go hunting for an animal that is rejected by the world of science and almost everybody else are bound to be people who don’t pay much attention to any opinion but their own, and expect not only to have an opinion but to act on it.”

Remember Jonathan Swift: “Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired.”

Our second story comes from the CBC via IFLScience, showing that our Canadian neighbors have shown a disturbing lack of immunity to our American anti-intellectualism.

It seems a Vancouver dad worried so much about the (totally discredited) myth that vaccines cause autism that he didn't get his kids vaccinated. Flash forward 10 years and add a family trip to Vietnam, and one of his kids became Patient Zero in a British Columbia measles outbreak:

[Emmanuel] Bilodeau believes one of his three sons contracted measles during a family trip to Vietnam earlier this year and that it has since spread at the French-language schools his children attend.

Bilodeau said he brought his sons to a travel clinic on Broadway Street before their trip where they received other vaccinations, but not for measles.

It was on the plane ride home that his 11-year-old son began experiencing symptoms, including fever.

Measles. In 2019. In Canada, which has perhaps one of the three or four most advanced health-care systems the world has ever seen.

So, go ahead and believe in 3-meter-tall ape-people wandering the forests of Oregon, but try to apply some logic and rationality to life-or-death decisions like whether to prevent people from getting a disease so easy to prevent we had almost eradicated it before the beginning of this century.

When did consciousness evolve?

New thinking says longer ago than you might think—with implications throughout the animal kingdom:

If [Attention Schema Theory (AST)] is correct, 300 million years of reptilian, avian, and mammalian evolution have allowed the self-model and the social model to evolve in tandem, each influencing the other. We understand other people by projecting ourselves onto them. But we also understand ourselves by considering the way other people might see us. Data from my own lab suggests that the cortical networks in the human brain that allow us to attribute consciousness to others overlap extensively with the networks that construct our own sense of consciousness.

Maybe partly because of language and culture, humans have a hair-trigger tendency to attribute consciousness to everything around us. We attribute consciousness to characters in a story, puppets and dolls, storms, rivers, empty spaces, ghosts and gods. Justin Barrett called it the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device, or HADD. One speculation is that it’s better to be safe than sorry. If the wind rustles the grass and you misinterpret it as a lion, no harm done. But if you fail to detect an actual lion, you’re taken out of the gene pool. To me, however, the HADD goes way beyond detecting predators. It’s a consequence of our hyper-social nature. Evolution turned up the amplitude on our tendency to model others and now we’re supremely attuned to each other’s mind states. It gives us our adaptive edge. The inevitable side effect is the detection of false positives, or ghosts.

And so the evolutionary story brings us up to date, to human consciousness—something we ascribe to ourselves, to others, and to a rich spirit world of ghosts and gods in the empty spaces around us. The AST covers a lot of ground, from simple nervous systems to simulations of self and others. It provides a general framework for understanding consciousness, its many adaptive uses, and its gradual and continuing evolution.

The author makes a strong argument that many vertebrates, including canids and corvids, have consciousness as we understand it, just so they can make sense of the world. It's an intriguing theory.

Note, also, that both the article and I use "theory" in its scientific sense: a hypotheses repeatedly tested and not yet falsified.