The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Congratulations, Senator!

For the first time in the institution's 229 years, a sitting U.S. Senator—from my own state, no less—has given birth:

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) gave birth Monday to a baby girl, the first time a sitting senator has delivered a child and one of just 10 female lawmakers to bear a child while serving in Congress.

Duckworth, 50, and her husband, Bryan Bowlsbey, named their daughter Maile Pearl Bowlsbey after Bowlsbey’s great aunt. Pearl Bowlseby Johnson was an Army nurse during World War II. Duckworth is a double amputee from her service in the Iraq War as an Army helicopter pilot, getting shot down in 2006. The senator said that she and her husband consulted with former senator Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii, who died last week, about the choice of name, just as they did with the birth of their first daughter, Abigail, four years ago.

Wait, she's 50? Wow. I can't decide which is more impressive, her age or her first-ever record. Either way, it's pretty cool.

The Thick of It is now

In a column last summer, UC Berkeley professor Ned Resnikoff saw Armando Ianucci's British sitcom The Thick of It as a warning:

As scathing as The Thick of It can be in its depiction of craven, self-interested political behavior, it’s difficult to imagine any of its protagonists engaging in criminality on a scale equal to what Trump’s inner circle may have committed.

Nor can The Thick of It capture the dizzying instability of American politics in 2017, though it has occasionally gotten close. The conventions of the sitcom genre usually demand that, for all the frantic activity in one episode or another, very little ever really changes; the prime minister might get ousted and the opposition may become the governing party, but the political system itself remains static. It’s barely five years later that we understand just how fragile that apparent stasis was all along.

Indeed, one can imagine a contemporary version of The Thick of It in which its starring hacks cross the murky boundary between unethical behavior and blatantly illegal acts,the usual unprincipled goons suddenly finding themselves locked into a partnership of convenience with committed racists; and in which the collateral damage they wreak has expanded to institutional and geopolitical dimensions. While that show does not yet exist, one can see the seeds of proto-Trumpian government-as-PR-crisis in old Thick of It episodes, like a warning we all failed to heed.

Yes. We're longing for the halcyon days of Malcolm Tucker. Welcome to the Trump Administration.

This guy again

Longtime readers know how much I loathe Eddie Lampert, who represents to me everything that is wrong with the adolescent philosophy emitted years ago by Ayn Rand.

Well, in next month's Vanity Fair, William Cohan sits down with the child king of hedge funds and hears him out:

[Lampert's] triumphs are largely obscured by his worst mistake: the 2005 merging of Sears, the iconic retailer whose doorstop mail-order catalogue was once a fixture in nearly every American home, with the downmarket Kmart chain, which he had brought out of bankruptcy in 2003. Twelve years on, this blundering into retail has made him a poster boy for what some people think is wrong with Wall Street and, in particular, hedge funds. Under his management the number of Sears and Kmart stores nationwide has shrunk to 1,207 from 5,670 at its peak, in the 2000s, and at least 200,000 Sears and Kmart employees have been thrown out of work. The pension fund, for retired Sears employees, is underfunded by around $1.6 billion, and both Lampert and Sears are being sued for investing employees’ retirement money in Sears stock, when the top brass allegedly knew it was a terrible investment.

The vultures are circling, waiting for Lampert to throw in the towel so they can try to make money by buying Sears’s discounted debt. But Lampert continues to claim that’s not going to happen if he can help it.

Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin “has been a shareholder and a member of the board of directors of Sears Holdings from the day that the combined company was formed [until becoming Treasury secretary], so he spent 11 years at Eddie’s side. . . . [With] all of Trump’s focus on jobs, job preservation, job creation, somebody ought to ask his secretary of the Treasury what his involvement has been for 11 years in the destruction of well over 100,000 jobs at Sears.” (A spokesman for Mnuchin declined to comment.)

Cohan treats Lampert fairly, I think. I didn't learn a lot, though. And Lampert still runs Sears, and still will find some way to make back most of the money he, personally, has invested in it. Too bad not enough of the right people think what he did to Sears and its employees is criminal.

Not that this is news

In addition to crapping on the norms of office that have kept our Republic functioning for centuries, the Trump Administration has lowered the bar for standard written English in politics:

Amid all the chaos in the White House — including West Wing personnel drama, the Stormy Daniels scandal and Mueller’s Russia investigation — some wayward spellings and inaccurate honorifics might seem minor. But the constant small mistakes — which have dogged the Trump White House since the president’s official Inauguration Day poster boasted that “no challenge is to great” — have become, critics say, symbolic of the larger problems with Trump’s management style, in particular his lack of attention to detail and the carelessness with which he makes policy decisions.

On Monday, for example, the White House rolled out an executive order from Trump aimed at cutting off U.S. investment in Venezuela’s digital currency as a way to pinch strongman Nicolás Maduro’s regime. But in the headline on the public news release, the White House wrote that Trump was taking action to “address the situation in America.”

“Freudian slip????” wondered Rosiland Jordan, a reporter for Al Jazeera.

Liz Allen, who served as White House deputy communications director under President Barack Obama, said in an interview that the press office under the 44th president sought to be as rigorous as possible. Releases typically were proofread for accuracy and content by at least four or five people. Announcements that dealt with domestic policy issues and foreign affairs were vetted by experts at federal agencies and the National Security Council, she said.

“We felt a burden and responsibility to get it right,” Allen said. “We were acutely aware of the integrity of our platform. We took it seriously. No one should meet a higher bar than the White House. They are the ultimate voice.”

Read through to the punchline.

But Allen makes the main point, I think. The Administration's written communications reflect a deeper antipathy to "getting it right." They just don't care. And our allies and adversaries alike have noticed.

What really was the Cuban sonic weapon?

About a year ago, a number of American diplomats and their families in Cuba were injured by what our military speculated might be a sonic weapon. A sonic weapon directs sonic energy at a target to disable, but not necessarily permanently damage, the person. Over a few months, people reported "blaring, grinding noise," hearing loss, speech problems, nausea, disequilibrium...exactly what a sonic weapon could cause.

Via Bruce Schneier, a team at the University of Michigan working in association with the IEEE has published a paper speculating on the variety of weapon how it might have worked:

On the face of it, it seems impossible. For one thing, ultrasonic frequencies—20 kilohertz or higher—are inaudible to humans, and yet the sounds heard by the diplomats were obviously audible. What’s more, those frequencies don’t propagate well through air and aren’t known to cause direct harm to people except under rarefied conditions. Acoustic experts dismissed the idea that ultrasound could be at fault.

Then, about six months ago, an editor from The Conversation sent us a link to a video from the Associated Press, reportedly recorded in Cuba during one of the attacks.

To make the problem tractable, we began by assuming that the source of the audible sounds in Cuba was indeed ultrasonic. Reviewing the OSHA guidance, Fu theorized that the sound came from the audible subharmonics of inaudible ultrasound. In contrast to harmonics, which are produced at integer multiples of a sound’s fundamental frequency, subharmonics are produced at integer divisors (or submultiples) of the fundamental frequency, such as 1/2 or 1/3. For instance, the second subharmonic of an ultrasonic 20-kHz tone is a clearly audible 10 kHz. Subharmonics didn’t quite explain the AP video, though: In the video, the spectral plot indicates tones evenly spaced every 180 Hz, whereas subharmonics would have appeared at progressively smaller fractions of the original frequency. Such a plot would not have the constant 180-Hz spacing.

Of course, to this day, no one knows exactly why the attacks occurred, and even to say "attacks" makes a reasonable but not certain assumption.

Tuesday link round-up

Late afternoon on Tuesday, with so much to do before the end of the week, I can only hope actually to read these articles that have passed through my inbox today:

And now for something completely different tonight: Improv and Arias. Which is why I wonder whether I'll actually get to read all of the articles I just posted about.

The Caribbean recovers

Climate change, in part, destroyed two of my favorite places in the world last year, but they're recovering slowly. Yesterday, the New York Times reported on the progress of both. First, Sint Maarten:

Passengers arriving at Princess Juliana International Airport, on the Dutch side of the island earlier this month, were directed onto the tarmac, past the battered terminal to a white wedding-style tent for immigration. Outside the parking lot, the Pink Iguana, a tugboat turned dockside bar, remained capsized in the water. Down the road, Maho Village (http://www.mahovillage.com/) was practically a ghost town. Of the roughly 40 bars, shops, restaurants and clubs along its entertainment strip, only a pharmacy, grocery store, real estate office and a few restaurants had reopened. All four of its seaside resorts — Sonesta Maho Beach Resort, Casino & Spa, Sonesta Ocean Point Resort, the Royal Islander Club La Plage and Royal Islander Club La Terrasse — are undergoing major reconstruction. None are scheduled to open before summer or fall.

Yet with another hurricane season fast approaching, much of the tourist zone is not only rebuilding, but undergoing a multimillion-dollar face-lift. The Maho Group alone is putting more than $50 million into a revamp of the Sonesta Resorts, including overhauling the Sonesta Maho Beach Resort, and incorporating a new contemporary design. Sonesta’s Casino Royale, the largest on the island, with more than 21,000 square feet of gaming, plans to reopen this summer with two new bistro-style al fresco restaurants and a rooftop bar and lounge. Shiny new rental cars awaits visitors at the Alamo rental office. The Rainbow Café (http://rainbowcafe.fr/en/home/) in Grand Case has a new whitewashed deck, a reconfigured layout, and chic red-and-white furnishings. “Everything is destroyed, so I tried to do something better,” the owner, Gobert Douglas, said with a French accent. Pointing out that he could have spent less on the renovation, he said, “I prefer to do this, change the floor, all the seating, all the style of the restaurant to make it new.”

I'm glad to see it. When I last visited the island, I spent some time outside the tourist regions and interacting with the people who lived there. It's not an easy life at the best of times. With tourism almost destroyed and their own infrastructure barely usable, it's no wonder both countries on the island have come together to restore what they could. I hope to visit again within the next year.

Vieques, which is part of the United States, also suffered tremendously in the last hurricane season. They've started putting the pieces back together as well:

Locals in frayed T-shirts and dreadlocks rubbed shoulders with people who’d arrived on dinghies from sailboats bobbing in deeper water, and a few other visitors from colder climates. The first one I met, Stephen, from Atlanta, had been a regular visitor since 2000.

“I’ve always thought of Vieques as ‘my’ island,” said Stephen, who was making his second visit since the storms. He’d discovered it when he was living in Boston and spotted a cheap flight to San Juan. “My copy of ‘Let’s Go’ suggested Vieques as a pretty good day trip. So I left my rental car on the ferry dock in Fajardo, figuring I’d be back that night. I ended up staying the whole week.”

Others lured by Vieques’s beauty, lack of pretension and low cost of living, have lived here for decades: In my short stay I ran into a museum director, an academic, artists, a retired nurse and a couple from Colorado, Norm and Deb, who had retired early and moved to the island sight unseen to live, as they put it, “on purpose.” Stephen was staying at El Blok, a Brutalist-style cement hotel at one end of the Malecón. When it opened in 2014 it was hailed as hip, chic and a little fancy, with a menu created by a famous chef — something of an anomaly on Vieques. Now the building has a plywood facade painted with the slogan “Vieques Se Levanta” — Vieques Will Rise. Workers head to the bar after sunset, and the vibe is friendly and a little raucous.

That the rest of the U.S. has made it so difficult for Vieques to rebuild is, I think, criminal. Especially if you put "America First," though those are exactly the people who have prevented restoration funding from flowing to the island.

If you're interested, click through for some of my earlier posts about Vieques and Sint Maarten.

Politically-motivated Spam from an island nation's PR department?

Over the past few weeks I've gotten several emails from someone purporting to be "Jess Miller" in New Zealand, mentioning she'd noticed a post I did on the Maldives in 2012. That post reported on the violent coup d'état that overthrew the democratically elected government of the island nation just southwest of the Indian subcontinent. And just a few weeks ago, the military dissolved Parliament and threw the country into more unrest. The U.S. State Department has issued a level-2 caution. Understandably, tourism has declined somewhat, which is a pity because it's unlikely the country will exist after another 50 years of climate-change-induced sea-level rise.

Anyway, "Jess" sent me an email about my "wonderful blog post" and called out "a solid blog post [she'd] read in the past," which turned out to be the U.K. Foreign Office travel warning about the place.

Then there's the punchline: "Jess" wants to cross-post with her "best things to do in the Maldives" article on her own site.

I think the best thing to do in the Maldives right now is not to go there.

So, "Jess," your article is very attractive and I think a wonderful list of things to do once the government of the Maldives returns to civilian control, their economy stops its free-fall, tourists stop getting robbed in their hotel rooms, and climate change goes into reverse so they stop suffering the existential peril that is driving all these problems.

Any takers on a bet that "Jess" has funding from a Maldives tourist agency?

Ides of March reading list

I'm writing a response to an RFP today, so I'll have to read these when I get a chance:

There were two more stories in my inbox this morning, but they deserve their own post after lunch.

Hell of a week

In the last seven days, these things have happened:

Meanwhile:

Can't wait to see what the next week will bring...