The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Back to childhood for a moment

The Chicago Architecture Foundation is sponsoring its annual Chicago Open House this weekend, so I visited a place I'd wondered about for years. I give you the Garfield-Clarendon Model Railroad:

They're celebrating their 70th anniversary, meaning the direct-train control, wireless throttles, and digital boards probably weren't original parts of the layout.

I had a model railroad for a few years as a kid. It looked nothing like this.

Pausing from parsing

My task this afternoon is to parse a pile of random text that has, shall we say, inconsistencies. Before I return to that task, I'm setting aside some stuff to read later on:

And finally, Crain's reviews five relatively-new steakhouses in Chicago. Since we probably won't eat steak past about 2030, these may be worth checking out sooner rather than later.

The Fifth Risk

"You'll never guess where I am," he said archly.

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm here to see the last team on my list play a home game. More on that tomorrow, as I probably won't blog about it after the game tonight.

I'm killing time and not wandering the streets of a city I don't really like in 33°C heat. Downtown St Louis has very little life that I can see. As I walked from the train to the hotel, I kept thinking it was Saturday afternoon, explaining why no one was around. Nope; no one was around because the city ripped itself apart after World War II and flung all its people into the suburbs.

On the train from Chicago I read all but the last two pages of Michael Lewis's most recent book, The Fifth Risk. The book examines what happens when the people in charge of the largest organization in the world have no idea how it works, starting with the 2016 election and going through last summer. To do that, Lewis explains what that organization actually does, from predicting the weather to making sure we don't all die of smallpox.

From the lack of any transition planning to an all-out effort to obscure the missions of vital government departments for profit, Lewis describes details of the Trump Administration's fleecing of American taxpayers that have probably eluded most people. By putting AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers in control of the National Weather Service, for example, Trump gave the keys to petabytes of data collected at taxpayer expense and available for free to everyone on earth to the guy who wants you to pay for it. Along the way, Lewis introduces us to people like DJ Patil, the United States' first Chief Data Scientist and the guy who found and put online for everyone those petabytes of weather data:

"The NOAA webpage used to have a link to weather forecasts," [Patil] said. "It was highly, highly popular. I saw it had been buried. And I asked: Now, why would they bury that?" Then he realized: the man Trump nominated to run NOAA thought that people who wanted a weather forecast should pay him for it. There was a rift in American life that was now coursing through American government. It wasn't between Democrats and Republicans. It was between the people who were in it for the mission, and the people who were in it for the money. (190-191)

I recommend this book almost as much as I recommend not coming to St Louis when it's this hot. Go buy it.

Party like it's 1959!

Citylab has the story of the remaining private railroad cars in the US:

[Bob] Lowe is one of only about 80 people in the U.S. who not only own their own railcars, but are also certified to operate them on Amtrak lines across the country—a subset of a national subculture of rail aficionados who buy up old train equipment. In addition to individual private owners, historical societies, museums, and nonprofit groups also run train excursions in locations around the U.S. While some buy surplus cars, locomotives, cabooses, and other railroad equipment from brokerage firms like Ozark Mountain Railcars, others, like Lowe, purchase cars directly from independent sellers, usually hobbyists themselves who can no longer afford to maintain their collection.

Private railcars are still on the tracks, but their owners, already an endangered species, are now wondering whether the end of the line is approaching for this pricey pursuit. “Where the industry is right now, it’s a little bit dicey, because people don’t know what’s going to happen,” says John Radovich, a longtime railcar collector based in Dallas.

For this, they pay Amtrak $3.67 per mile (an increase from the $3.26 per mile as of last year, Lowe says). Any trailing cars after the first one run an additional $2.81 a mile. That doesn’t include the other expenses that go along with private car ownership. Each one of Lowe’s cars, for example, cost him about $150,000. His Colonial car was turnkey, but he put $50,000 into the Salisbury Beach car for maintenance and upgrades, including new brakes and electric heat, to make it Amtrak certified. If you’re a DIY collector on a tighter budget, a beater unrestored car, without electric power, can start at around $25,000. A fully restored one can be upwards of $500,000.

This is not to be confused Car 553, the last remaining private railcar in scheduled service, that has run on the Union Pacific North Line in Chicago for the past few decades. Membership in that club only costs $900 a year.

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?

The last moments of winter

Today actually had a lot of news, not all of which I've read yet:

And now, good night to February.

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.

There has always been local government capture

I wanted to post this when it came out but life intervened. A couple weeks ago, New Republic reported on the sad tale of exurban town Elwood, Ill., and the "opportunity" they seized on with a giant intermodal freight terminal in 2002:

Fifteen years before Amazon’s HQ2 horserace, Elwood had won the retail lottery. “Nobody envisioned what we have out here,” said Jerry Heinrich, who sat on the board of the planning commission that first apportioned the land for development in the mid-1990s. “It was never anticipated that every major business entity would end up in the area.”

But this corporate valhalla turned out to be hell for the community, which suffered a concentrated dose of the indignities and disappointments of late capitalism in the 21st century. Instead of abundant full-time work, a regime of partial, precarious employment set in. Temp agencies flourished, but no restaurants, hotels, or grocery stores ever came, save for the recent addition of a dollar store. Tens of thousands of semis rumbled through Will County every day, wreaking havoc on the infrastructure. And as the town of Elwood scrambled to pave its potholes, its inability to collect taxes from the facilities plunged it into more than $30 million in debt.

And that was before Big Tech rolled in. Just four years ago Amazon didn’t even have one facility in the region; now, with five fulfillment centers, it’s the county’s largest employer. Growth, once arithmetic, became exponential. Plans were made to build a new facility, this one bigger than the original Intermodal, with room for some 35 million additional square feet of industrial space.

It's astounding, but not surprising, that this would happen. And more than just a cautionary story about getting more than you bargained for, it should remind people that voting in local elections matters a lot.

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.

Why American transit systems suck

Anyone who has traveled from the US to Canada or Europe notices quickly that their transit systems simply work better. Londoners may moan about the Tube, but one can get from any part of Greater London to any other at almost any time of day using trains or buses.

Writing for Citylab, Jonathan English explains why and how the rest of the world got it right and we got it so very wrong:

[T]o briefly summarize: Transit everywhere suffered serious declines in the postwar years, the cost of cars dropped and new expressways linked cities and fast-growing suburbs. That article pointed to a key problem: The limited transit service available in most American cities means that demand will never materialize—not without some fundamental changes.

Many, though not all, major cities in the U.S. have a number of rail lines radiating out of their centers. Most of them are only used by freight or a few commuter train trips a day. It’s a huge, untapped resource. There’s no reason why those railway lines can’t be turned into what are effectively subway lines—high-capacity routes that allow people to get across the city quickly—without the immense cost of tunneling. In Europe, what we usually call “commuter rail” operates frequently, all day, and cost the same fare as other local transit. That’s the difference between regional rail and commuter rail. A transit system with service that is only useful to 9-to-5 commuters to downtown will never be a useful one for most people.

Fares need to be low enough that people can afford to take transit. New York City will soon join other cities like Tucson and Ann Arbor in having discounted fares for low-income people. That is important to make transit accessible to everyone. But fair fares isn’t just about keeping fares low. It’s also about eliminating arbitrary inequities. People shouldn’t have to pay a transfer penalty or a double fare just because they switch from bus to rail, transfer between agencies, or travel across the city limits. A transfer is an inconvenience—you shouldn’t have to pay extra for it.

Fares should be set for the convenience of riders, not government agencies. A trip of a similar distance should have a similar fare, regardless of whether it’s on a bus or train, or if you have to cross city limits. Commuter rail shouldn’t be a “premium service” that only suburban professionals can afford.This is the kind of unfairness that infuriates people and drives them away from transit.

Chicago, by the way, has contemplated a regional farecard system for decades. Maybe someday...