The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

$350 million in fines

New York Justice Arthur Engoron just handed the XPOTUS a $350 million fine and barred him and his two failsons from running a business in New York for years:

The decision by Justice Arthur F. Engoron caps a chaotic, yearslong case in which New York’s attorney general put Mr. Trump’s fantastical claims of wealth on trial. With no jury, the power was in Justice Engoron’s hands alone, and he came down hard: The judge delivered a sweeping array of punishments that threatens the former president’s business empire as he simultaneously contends with four criminal prosecutions and seeks to regain the White House.

Mr. Trump will appeal the financial penalty — which could climb to $400 million or more once interest is added — but will have to either come up with the money or secure a bond within 30 days. The ruling will not render him bankrupt, because most of his wealth is tied up in real estate.

Of course he'll appeal, but New York doesn't give him many grounds to do so. And given the scale of the fraud he perpetrated on the State, even this eye-watering sum will probably survive scrutiny from the appellate court.

In other news this afternoon:

Finally, the Tribune has a long retrospective on WGN-TV weather reporter Tom Skilling, who will retire after the 10pm newscast on the 28th.

The tipping point

Frustrated with point-of-sale systems suggesting you tip the self-checkout machine 25%? You're not alone:

[T]raditional tipping patterns are being disrupted in unpredictable ways, raising workers’ expectations and making consumers grumpy. The feeling even has a name: “tipping fatigue.” A June survey by the financial services company Bankrate found that 66 percent of adults held a negative view of tipping. Forty-one percent said businesses should just pay workers better, and 32 percent said they don’t like being presented with those Goldilocks-like tablet screens suggesting three possible tips. Thirty percent said tipping culture was out of control, but only half as many (16 percent) said they’d be willing to pay higher prices to make tipping go away.

[N]either Amy Vanderbilt (1908–1974) nor Letitia Baldridge (1926–2012) ever knew today’s world, where you’re invited to tip at a retail checkout counter where the only service is to ring up a charge and perhaps bag a few items, or at a self-checkout machine where no service is provided at all. Tipping is in effect a new form of “junk fee,” with the only difference that paying or not paying is left to the customer’s tortured conscience. Even when you’re promised the proceeds will go to employees, the boss is clearly shifting some labor costs onto the customer, which is infuriating.

In D.C., many restaurants are introducing a 20 percent service charge, the equivalent of the French “servis compris”; European restaurateurs figured out long before their American counterparts that tipping culture is retrograde. But it’s still advisable to check with your waiter to make sure the money goes to staff and isn’t offsetting previous wages or benefits; D.C. law requires that restaurants disclose how such fees are spent, but there have been abuses.If the financial arrangement isn’t clear, then my own etiquette guide says you’re still stuck paying a 20 percent tip.

You still don't have to tip the self-checkout machine, though. It gets paid enough.

Arts patronage at all-time low

Crain's Chicago Business reported this morning on the precipitous decline in performing-arts audiences (sub.req.) since March 2020:

Chicago arts and cultural organizations emerged from COVID-19 lockdowns, virtual performances and fully masked audiences to slow-to-return patrons, reduced ticket sales and scaled-backed productions. A decline in subscription rates, shockingly higher costs, and donations that haven't kept pace with inflation have thrown some arts organizations off balance and spiraled others into crisis.

Museums, music and dance venues have bounced back faster. Theaters struggled, perhaps, due to the expense and complexity of producing and staging plays.

One widespread explanation: People are still holed up at home in their pandemic pajamas binge-watching "The Bear" and "Ted Lasso." Or they're amusing themselves with YouTube videos. On the other hand, music fans will pay thousands to see a Taylor Swift extravaganza.

Even when audiences show up, they're buying tickets at the last minute. That makes for a white-knuckled ride for theater planners. And with theater-goers forgoing subscriptions, there's less money upfront as a cushion. In the long run, that could make planners less inclined to take a risk on a controversial or innovative work.

Between 2019 and 2022, average in-person attendance at performing arts events plunged 59% to 13,104, with theaters being the hardest hit, according to the DCASE study. "We were the first to close and the last to reopen," says PJ Powers, artistic director at TimeLine Theatre. "You can't just flip on the lights and you're back."

I've served as president of the Apollo Chorus of Chicago since September 2020. Let me tell you, it's bad. We're all suffering. I have meetings with venues that want the same amount we paid them (or more) in 2018, but we just don't have the audience. We're working on how to increase our funding, but until we get corporate sponsorship or major donations from people who love us, we have to go to smaller venues and perform works with smaller instrumentation. (Last spring, for example, we performed Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle, whose orchestration includes two pianos and a harmonium.)

So. Anyone want to donate $50,000 to a nice non-profit chorus? We'll put your name top of the program.

Quickly jotting things down

I hope to make the 17:10 train this evening, so I'll just note some things I want to read later:

Finally, Molly White looks at the ugly wriggling things under the rocks Sam Bankman-Fried's trial turned over: "Now that Sam Bankman-Fried has been convicted in one of the largest financial fraud cases in history, the crypto industry would like people to please hurry up and move on. The trial is over, and it’s just so dang inconvenient that Bankman-Fried so publicly ruined the general reputation of an industry rife with scams and frauds by making it seem as though it is an industry rife with scams and frauds."

RTO costs more for everyone

I mentioned that my office recently went back to a Tuesday through Thursday schedule downtown. Since our final return to office (RTO), I'd gone in twice a week, usually Wednesday and Thursday. I actually prefer a Friday and Monday schedule, but since the rest of my team comes in mid-week, I have to go in then.

The additional day actually costs additional money. The Sun-Times reported yesterday that RTO costs employees about $51 per day on average. Perhaps; but it costs me about $80 per day, broken down as follows: Cassie's day care, $51; train fare, $8.30; coffee, $4; breakfast, $5; lunch, $10. At least the train fare is pre-tax money. But really, that means, if you add income tax, RTO costs me $100 per day.

But now that she goes to school three days a week instead of just two, at least someone gets a huge benefit from the extra expense:

Fridays, for Cassie, are nap days. For me, they're definitely not. And that $51 per day for day care really stings.

Evening reading

I actually had a lot to do today at my real job, so I pushed these stories to later:

Finally, The Economist calls out "six books you didn't know were propaganda," including Doctor Zhivago and One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Not the long post I hope to write soon

I'm still thinking about propaganda in the Gaza war, but I'm not done thinking yet. Or, at least, not at a stopping point where a Daily Parker post would make sense. That said, Julia Ioffe sent this in the introduction to her semi-weekly column; unfortunately I can't link to it:

The absolutely poisonous discourse around this war, though, has taken all of that to a whole other level. The rage, the screaming, and the disinformation, ahistoricity, the anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, the propaganda—all of it has felt overwhelming at times. The way that reasonable people I otherwise respect have shown themselves to be hard-hearted zealots—clinging to what they want to believe, starting not with the facts but rather their ideology and working backwards from there—has led me to stop talking to people on both sides of the divide. The facts of what’s happening in Israel and Gaza are hard enough to absorb as it is.

As usual, Ioffe wrote what I was thinking. Again, I'll have more, but that's a very good take.

  • The column Ioffe introduced in that email, an interview with international lawyer David Scheffer, is a must-read.
  • A jury found the National Association of Realtors liable for restraint of trade and anti-competitive practices, awarding the plaintiffs $1.87 billion in damages. (Where's my refund from my last house purchase?)
  • Strong Towns points out that contrary to the wishes of many on the left, rent control works as an anti-displacement policy, but not as an affordability policy.
  • Chicago Tribune sports writer Paul Sullivan laments that this year's World Series, between the 5th and 6th seeds, for which three 100-win teams lost in the playoffs, has the smallest audience of any World Series in television history. Can't think why.
  • It turns out, AI image generation can only be as good as the images it learns on, which means AIs have even more bias than humans do.
  • Somehow I wrote a 20-page paper for 11th grade on Mark Twain and never read the account of him meeting Winston Churchill in 1900.

Finally, Michelin just announced its Bib Gourmand list for Chicago, with its US stars all coming out next Tuesday. The Bib list has five new restaurants that I must now visit. We'll see who gets new stars in a few days.

Winter in the air

We officially had our first freeze last night as the temperature at O'Hare dipped to -1°C. At Inner Drive Technology World HQ it only got down to 0.1°C, barely above freezing, but still cold enough to put on ear muffs and gloves taking Cassie to day camp this morning. It'll warm up a bit this weekend, though.

Meanwhile, I'm writing a longer post about propaganda, which I may post today or tomorrow. And that's not the only fun thing happening in the world, either:

  • Ukraine has had a lot of success blowing up $2 million Russian tanks with $400 drones. Good.
  • The XPOTUS keeps making fun of the President's age, which, like everything else he does and says, turns out to have a pretty large element of projection. (Remember: to figure out what the XPOTUS wants to do, listen to what he says our lot are doing.) Bad.
  • Chicago house prices have risen faster than in any other major US city lately, but only because they still lag almost every other US city. Mixed.
  • BlueTriton, the parent company of Poland Springs-brand bottled water, not only sells one of the worst products for degrading our natural environment, but also has engaged in ballsy corruption to "persuade" the Maine legislature to let it continue doing so. Bad.
  • HackRead reports a 587% increase in "quishing" attacks, where bad guys get you to scan bogus QR codes to steal your credentials. Very bad.
  • Paleontologists have published evidence that the dust layer kicked up by the Chicxulub impact 66 million years ago may have persisted for 15 years, shutting down photosynthesis entirely for up to 24 months. Bad for the dinosaurs, good for the paleontologists.

Finally, as you sniffle and snort this winter, it might not comfort you to know that you have two noses that can get congested and runny. Bad.

"Content" is rude: Emma Thompson

The English actor does not make widgets or suffer fools:

At some point a few years back, an unholy union of like-minded tech bros, studio suits, media water-carriers and social media personalities settled on their own “widget,” a catchall phrase that would both encompass and minimize the various forms of entertainment they touch: “content.” And when news broke on Sunday night that the monthslong Writers Guild of America strike was coming to an end, Variety, the industry bible, gave this term its most skin-crawling deployment to date, noting that the W.G.A. strike had taken “a heavy toll across the content industry.”

Variety itself had run, just a few days earlier, a pointed rebuke to the term from no less an authority than the Oscar-winning actor and screenwriter Emma Thompson. “To hear people talk about ‘content’ makes me feel like the stuffing inside a sofa cushion,” she said at the Royal Television Society conference in Britain last week.

“It’s just a rude word for creative people,” she added. “I know there are students in the audience: You don’t want to hear your stories described as ‘content’ or your acting or your producing described as ‘content.’ That’s just like coffee grounds in the sink or something.”

Way back in business school, the very first thing our finance professor said was, "An asset is a series of cash flows." When I asked him if assets had intrinsic value, he said "that is not a relevant consideration in corporate finance." These are the people running the studios and streamers.

Thank you for reading my content. I hope you feel content.

Those who can't create, execute

Writing for The New Yorker, Inkoo Kang summarizes why the film industry seems in precipitous decline lately:

To survey the film and television industry today is to witness multiple existential crises. Many of them point to a larger trend: of Hollywood divesting from its own future, making dodgy decisions in the short term that whittle down its chances of long-term survival. Corporations are no strangers to fiscal myopia, but the ways in which the studios are currently squeezing out profits—nickel-and-diming much of their labor force to the edge of financial precarity while branding their output with the hallmarks of creative bankruptcy—indicate a shocking new carelessness. Signs of this slow suicide are all around: the narrowing pipelines for rising talent, the overreliance on nostalgia projects, and a general negligence in cultivating enthusiasm for its products. Writers and actors have walked out to demand fairer wages and a more equitable system, but they’ve also argued, quite persuasively, that they’re the ones trying to insure the industry’s sustainability. Meanwhile, studio executives—themselves subject to C-suite musical chairs—seem disinterested in steering Hollywood away from the iceberg. This is perhaps because the landscape is shifting (and facets of it are shrinking) so rapidly that they themselves have little idea of what the future of Hollywood might look like.

Some of the first Cassandras to draw the public’s attention to this slo-mo self-sabotage were the striking writers. W.G.A. members have expressed alarm not only that their profession has become devalued and unstable through low pay but also that the paths that allowed newcomers to eventually become showrunners, which have existed for the past half century, have been eroded by the studios.

The movies may be in grimmer shape. The industry’s pursuit of I.P. at the expense of originality has all but trained younger audiences not to expect novelty or surprise at the multiplex, assuming that they’re going to the theatre at all. Hollywood has never been known for overestimating the audience’s intelligence, but it’s hard not to wonder how it is supposed to be inculcating a love of cinema in children—that is, future moviegoers—when the splashiest films on offer are explicitly buckets of regurgitation.

Barbie,” meanwhile, saw the director Greta Gerwig infuse the half-century-old blond blank slate with her own idiosyncratic anxieties to produce a Zeitgeist-capturing film with an unmistakable authorial imprimatur. But Hollywood’s ignoring the obvious takeaway, which is that viewers appreciate novelty. Instead, Mattel has announced that it will follow up “Barbie” by raiding its toy closet for more I.P., and has put dozens of projects based on its products into development.

Last week I finished, at some personal cost, a slog through a streaming show I had hoped to like: the third season of Star Trek: Picard. I loved Star Trek as a kid, and I thought most of TNG worked. (TNG may look clunky today, but the original series looked clunky in 1988, just as today's ultra-low-gamma, poorly-mixed film will look horrible in 2050.)

I note this because it disappointed me for all the reasons that the film industry disappoints everyone today: poor writing, poor storytelling, yet one more whack at the empty Star Trek piñata, and poor writing. I imagine ST:P came out of the dreaded mini-rooms from writers who got paid little and probably threw out their AA pins when they saw the final product.

Every so often, an industry blows up. Film won't disappear in my lifetime: people have watched visual stories since they first sat around campfires a hundred millennia ago. But we may have reached the end of the amazing and original movies and films that started with Life Goes On and Babylon 5 in the 1990s through Battlestar Galactica and Deadwood in the 2000s. Go watch a 1970s sitcom and weep.